All manner of horses have come out trainer Todd Pletcher's barn and into the starting gate for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
He's had—to name a few—a trio of unbeaten grade 1 winners (Gemologist in 2012, Verrazano in 2013, and Materiality in 2015), a brave filly (Devil May Care in 2010), an upstart who outran his odds (Invisible Ink in 2001), and an under-the-radar sophomore who is the lone name listed in bold among his 45 race starters (Super Saver in 2010) to signify his triumph on the First Saturday in May.
What the seven-time Eclipse Award winner has yet to saddle is a horse that goes off as the post-time favorite in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1). In Always Dreaming Pletcher has a realistic chance May 6 to knock off that feat, in what would be a fitting designation for a horse who has elicited as much buzz as any contender his conditioner has gotten to this point in the process.
The term "wide-open" is tossed about the Churchill Downs backstretch like a baseball of late whenever the connections of Kentucky Derby aspirants are asked about the complexion of this year's Run for the Roses. What has been clear-cut to anyone who has witnessed Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming go through his morning training is that the son of Bodemeister is doing a fantastic impression of a powder keg that could explode in one of two fashions Saturday.
Since he stepped off the van in Louisville, the dark bay has been exceptionally aggressive in training. On May 1 Pletcher added draw reins to the colt, put veteran exercise rider Nick Bush in the saddle, and sent the duo out as soon as the track opened in an effort to get his charge to start harnessing his energy for the positive.
The colt got rave reviews after he sizzled through a five-furlong move in :59 3/5 over the track April 28. Given the way he throttled his competition by five lengths in the Florida Derby—his first try against stakes company—a popular theory is that Always Dreaming is either sitting on a freak effort in a race where he could be the controlling speed, or will be leg weary by the time they reach the track kitchen if his aggression leads to a "bounce" out of post 5.
"This is our third time and the first two times, our horses have been 50-1 in the morning line," said Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, which co-owns Always Dreaming along with Siena Farm, Brooklyn Boyz Stables, Teresa Viola, St. Elias Stable, and MeB Racing. "To come here with this much firepower is obviously very exciting and a different outlook for everyone, because we all expect that he's going to run lights out. Now whether that is good enough to win this race ... we think it is.
"But there are probably at least 10 connections that really feel strongly that they're going to win."
Count trainer Mark Casse in that camp.
The Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner is teeming with confidence regarding his charge Classic Empire, the quirky reigning juvenile champion who rebounded from physical and mental setbacks this season to establish himself as the morning-line favorite in the expected 20-horse lineup.
Many wrote John Oxley's colt off after he missed weeks of training this winter and spring due to a hoof abscess, a minor back issue, and a case of the yips when he refused to break off for a couple of scheduled works. After regrouping at Winding Oaks Farm—the same facility where he was broken—the son of Pioneerof the Nile came into the Arkansas Derby (G1) less than 100% fit and still prevailed to a third top-level triumph.
At his best, the winner of the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) is arguably the most talented member of his generation. And should the Churchill track come up sloppy given the level of rain in the forecast, the bay colt has the advantage of past good form over that surface. He broke his maiden beneath the Twin Spires over a sealed, sloppy track last in May of 2016.
"I just don't see how he couldn't move forward (off the Arkansas Derby)," said Casse, who will also saddle Florida Derby runner-up State of Honor in the Kentucky Derby. "I read somewhere that it said he's not bred to go a mile and a quarter. Well, he went a mile and an eighth off a three-month layoff, so I don't have to worry about a mile and a quarter.
"With the average horse, we couldn't do what we've done. This horse is just so talented that he can overcome. I've always said good horses win when everything goes their way. Great horses win when nothing goes their way. I think he's a great horse, but we'll determine that (on Saturday)."
State of Honor and Always Dreaming will break alongside one another, leaving the key early speed to the inside.
Seeing those two battle it out up front would be fine with trainer Ian Wilkes, who will saddle his first Derby starter under his name in multiple graded stakes winner McCraken. The former assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger watched McCraken go undefeated in three starts at Churchill last season and then become the buzz horse on the early Derby trail when he won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) in a then track-record time during his season debut.
Janis Whitham's homebred suffered his first loss when he finished third in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2), but has trained like a monster in recent works at Churchill, with huge gallop outs that had jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. battling to pull him up.
"Some horses don't like that and they lose their concentration," Wilkes said. "Other horses thrive on the challenge, and my horse likes a challenge. And it looks like there is some speed to the inside, which can take the field forward instead of it being a log jam."
Few have made as good an impression since arriving in Louisville than Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Irish War Cry. The strapping Curlin colt has looked tremendous in his spins around the Churchill oval under the watch of trainer Graham Motion, but the question still lingers as to which version of Irish War Cry will show up.
After Isabelle de Tomaso's homebred toppled a field that included multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera and Classic Empire in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) during his seasonal debut, Irish War Cry threw in a clunker when he finished seventh to Gunnevera in the March 4 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2). His 3 1/2-length Wood triumph erased many of those bad feelings, and he has enough early speed to work himself into a good spot around the first turn coming out of post 17.
"I think he fits very well here. He's certainly the livest shot I've had coming up to the race," said Motion, who saddled Animal Kingdom to the upset win in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. "You need a really special horse to pull this off, and you need a little luck to go your way. You need a good trip on Saturday. Usually you have a horse or a couple horses that stand out, but I think it's a wide open race for sure."
Gormley joins Classic Empire and Practical Joke as the only multiple grade 1 winners in the Derby field, coming into the 10-furlong test off a victory over Battle of Midway in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby (G1) for trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss. The strength of the California-based contenders has been maligned this year, however, with the Santa Anita Derby final time of 1:51.16 clocked as the slowest since 1957.
One horse who had his form flattered since his last start is Steve Asmussen trainee Hence. The son of Street Boss captured the Sunland Derby (G3) by 3 3/4 lengths March 26 and that race's fourth-place finisher, Irap, returned to take the Blue Grass Stakes.
"Looking at the field, there is tremendous talent but not a lot of experience," Asmussen said. "There's not a lot of experience with some of the talented ones, so there's a lot of variables there."
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 06, 2017, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Lookin At Lee (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 126 Steven M. Asmussen 20/1 2 2Thunder Snow (IRE) Christophe Soumillon 126 Saeed bin Suroor 20/1 3 3Fast and Accurate (PA) Channing Hill 126 Michael J. Maker 50/1 4 4Untrapped (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 126 Steven M. Asmussen 30/1 5 5Always Dreaming (KY) John R. Velazquez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 5/1 6 6State of Honor (ON) Jose Lezcano 126 Mark E. Casse 30/1 7 7Girvin (KY) Mike E. Smith 126 Joe Sharp 15/1 8 8Hence (KY) Florent Geroux 126 Steven M. Asmussen 15/1 9 9Irap (KY) Mario Gutierrez 126 Doug F. O'Neill 20/1 10 10Gunnevera (KY) Javier Castellano 126 Antonio Sano 15/1 11 11Battle of Midway (KY) Flavien Prat 126 Jerry Hollendorfer 30/1 12 12Sonneteer (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 126 J. Keith Desormeaux 50/1 13 13J Boys Echo (KY) Luis Saez 126 Dale L. Romans 20/1 14 14Classic Empire (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 126 Mark E. Casse 4/1 15 15McCraken (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 126 Ian R. Wilkes 5/1 16 16Tapwrit (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 126 Todd A. Pletcher 20/1 17 17Irish War Cry (NJ) Rajiv Maragh 126 H. Graham Motion 6/1 18 18Gormley (KY) Victor Espinoza 126 John A. Shirreffs 15/1 19 19Practical Joke (KY) Joel Rosario 126 Chad C. Brown 20/1 20 20Patch (KY) Tyler Gaffalione 126 Todd A. Pletcher 30/1 21 21Royal Mo (KY) Gary L. Stevens 126 John A. Shirreffs 20/1 22 22Master Plan (KY) John R. Velazquez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 50/1
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 06, 2017, Race 12