As the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner faded in the final turn of the Preakness Stakes (G1), all the pre-race talk about a two-horse showdown appeared to be misguided.
But the second jewel of the Triple Crown was still destined to be a two-horse race, as Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence's Cloud Computing emerged in the stretch as the only threat.
With a furlong to run, the Maclean's Music colt had three lengths to make up, but the final eighth of a mile was his. Inside the sixteenth pole, the pair went head-and-head as Classic Empire dug in when the challenger moved alongside, but Cloud Computing just outfinished his rival to get his head in front at the wire.
Cloud Computing boasts 2016 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown as his conditioner, and was ridden by reigning champion jockey Javier Castellano.
"It's special, because Chad—he gives me a lot of support in my career," Castellano said. "We have been satisfied the last couple of years. We've had a lot of great winners. Today is special."
It was the first Triple Crown classic win for Brown—in his first Preakness start—and first for Cloud Computing's owners. Castellano picked up his second Triple Crown classic, following his 2006 Preakness victory aboard Bernardini .
"I've been training now for 10 years. We've run four horses in the Derby. This is our first Preakness try," the 38-year-old trainer said. "But I personally put a lot of time in, and my staff has put a lot of time in. When you add the time as an assistant trainer, for two great trainers, it feels like I've been doing it forever, really. So I don't take it for granted."
After setting the pace, 6-5 favorite Always Dreaming tired to finish eighth, two weeks after his Kentucky Derby win.
"We were in the position we expected to be, and I think the turnaround was a little too quick," said Always Dreaming's trainer, Todd Pletcher, who also indicated after the race that the Derby winner scoped clean and came back to the Pimlico stakes barn in good order. "He ran so hard in the Derby and today just wasn't his day."
Cloud Computing, who went off at 13-1 in the Preakness, did not run in the Kentucky Derby, and came to Baltimore off a third-place finish in the Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2) April 8 at Aqueduct Racetrack. Prior to the Preakness, Cloud Computing's only victory was his debut score, which came at six furlongs Feb. 11 at Aqueduct. His only other start prior to the Wood Memorial was a second-place run in the Gotham Stakes (G3), also at Aqueduct.
Cloud Computing's Preakness win also made him the first grade 1 winner for Hill 'n' Dale stallion Maclean's Music.
"I'm not going to dispute the fact that I brought in a fresh horse as part of our strategy," Brown said. "Our horse is very talented, too. Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are two outstanding horses and our strategy was, if we were going to ever beat them, let's take them on two weeks' rest when we have six, and it worked."
Early on, after breaking just outside of Always Dreaming, Classic Empire never left the Derby winner's side. After a first quarter in :23.16, the margin was a head. Through the first half-mile in :46.81, it was a half-length. At six furlongs in 1:11 it was a head once again.
But unlike the Derby, in which he kicked away to win by 2 3/4 lengths, it quickly became clear that Always Dreaming lacked the same late punch in the second turn of the Preakness.
"I didn't have it. That's it. Not much to say," said Always Dreaming's jockey, John Velazquez. "I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch, when the other horse got to him, almost head-to-head, and engaged him. I knew I didn't have it. That's horse racing."
Classic Empire hit the front through a 1:36.63 mile, but the colt could not find enough late to hold off Cloud Computing, who finished off the 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.98. The main track, which was muddy to start the day and good later in the card, was upgraded to fast right before the Preakness.
"I'm surprised I'm not more disappointed, but how could you be disappointed?" said Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse. "He ran his butt off and I'm just proud of him. All I asked for was for us to have a fair shake, and we got it today.
"This horse is so talented. My thought was, if we sat back and Always Dreaming beat us that way, then I'd be upset. I said, 'You know what? I think we have the two best horses. Let's go at it.' My only disappointment was that Always Dreaming didn't carry him a little farther, because as we know he tends to wander a little bit, and he got to wandering. Like in the (Sentient Jet) Breeders' Cup (Juvenile, G1), he fought back, but it was too much."
Another 4 3/4 lengths back in third came Senior Investment, who closed from ninth. He was followed by Lookin At Lee, Gunnevera, Multiplier, Conquest Mo Money, Always Dreaming, Hence, and Term of Art, to complete the order of finish.
Bred in Kentucky by Hill 'n' Dale Equine Holdings and Stretch Run Ventures out of the A.P. Indy mare Quick Temper, Cloud Computing was a $200,000 purchase by agent Mike Ryan out of the Keeneland September yearling sale.
Brown said after the Preakness that he would consider running Cloud Computing in the Belmont Stakes (G1), but that the 1 1/2-mile distance might be beyond the lightly raced colt's comfort level.
"We really don't know. We were just going to take it race-by-race with this horse. We're going to see," Brown said. "Do I think he's a mile-and-a-half horse? He's never really struck me that way, but I'm not going to rule it out. Let's see how he comes out of it and who is running and get a feel for it. I'll leave it as a possibility right now."
Trainer Kenny McPeek was a little more enthusiastic about taking on the Belmont's 12 furlongs with Senior Investment.
"He's a really good horse with a huge future and I think we're just getting started with him," McPeek said. "A mile and a half and the Belmont is going to be really up his alley."
Even Casse, after running Classic Empire in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, said he might consider the third after observing the Pioneerof the Nile colt return to the barn full of energy following the Preakness.
"I would say, seeing him act this way, there is a better chance than there was (immediately after the race)," Casse said. "But we'll see."