With skies overcast and temperatures in the mid-60s, horse racing fans at Pimlico Race Course anticipated the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes May 20 where favorite Always Dreaming was poised to try to duplicate his win in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier. From a betting perspective, Always Dreaming was a 4-5 favorite in the morning line odds followed by Classic Empire, the fourth-place finisher in the Derby, who was listed at 3-1.
Classic Empire had a tough go at Churchill Downs May 6 getting bumped and jostled out of the starting gate on a sloppy track. Meanwhile, Always Dreaming got a perfect ride from jockey John Velazquez to win by 2 3/4 lengths.
Always Dreaming will face nine other colts in the 1 3/16-mile Middle Jewel of racing's Triple Crown in what should be ideal weather, assuming gray skies don't yield to rain. Late on Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico, sweltering weather gave way to a sudden driving rain that turned the track muddy. As the Preakness undercard got underway, the Pimlico track condition was listed as "good."
Always Dreaming has been at Pimlico for more than a week, arriving three days after his win at the Derby. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt will be trying to add the second leg of the Triple Crown to his resume and if he's successful, he'll attempt to complete the sweep of racing's marquee events at New York's Belmont Stakes June 10.
So far, Always Dreaming is undefeated as a three-year old going 4-for-4.
"I think he's pretty special," Pletcher said the Day before the Preakness. "We're going to find out more, but when you look at what he's done this year, winning his first couple of races by open lengths, winning the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby by the margins he did, it's pretty exceptional. It's pretty rare that you see that."
A month before the Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby by five lengths.
Classic Empire, ridden by Julien Leparoux and trained by Mark Casse, won the Arkansas Derby earlier this year and had two first-place finishes as a two-year old.
Casse welcomed the break in the weather.
"He's going to be real happy when it cools off, too," Casse said of Classic Empire. "That will really getting him feeling well. We're anxious for a little cooler weather. It was pretty hot."
Adding to the drama of the start of the Preakness, is that Always Dreaming will start in the No. 4 gate and Classic Empire will come out of the No. 5 chute.
Two other horses that fans will be watching are Lookin at Lee, the second-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, and Gunnevera, who was seventh in the Derby. Gunnevera is known as a closer but in a couple of his races -- including the Derby -- he has started so far off the pace he was unable to effectively rally. There's been a switch in jockeys for Gunnevera as Mike Smith replaces Javier Castellano. Gunnevera was 12-1 in the early odds. Lookin at Lee, the son of 2010 Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky, was a longshot at Churchill Downs (33-1) but after finishing second, he was 10-1 for the Preakness in the early odds.
Maryland Jockey Club president and general manager, Sal Sinatra addressed the ongoing issue of what may happen with Pimlico, an aging facility that is badly in need of upgrading. The MJC, which owns Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Preakness Stakes, has made it clear that it feels the Preakness might be better served if it were held at Laurel where The Stronach Group, the Canadian parent of the MJC, is investing tens of millions of dollars.
"We're waiting on the second phase of the Maryland Stadium Authority's study that will tell us more about what it would cost to renovate Pimlico," Sinatra said. "The original number was $300 million and I think that will swell."
In fact, the MJC has made it clear that a renovation would probably not be enough -- a total rebuild would be necessary in order to add luxury boxes.
Also, the MJC made a second presentation to Breeder's Cup officials during Preakness Day to bring the prestigious two-day event to Laurel for either 2020 or 2021. A successful bid would be an enormous boost to Maryland racing.
Early Preakness Stakes Races
In the Preakness undercard early in the day, Everything Lovely won the $100,000 The Very One, a five-furlong sprint on the turf for fillies and mares, three-years old and up.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Everything Lovely got out in front early and won by a length in 57.93 seconds and paid $7.80 to win. She was followed across the finish line by Sunnysammi, with Joe Bravo in the irons, and Elusive Joni was third with Trevor McCarthy riding.
In the $200,000 Chick Lang Stakes, a six-furlong race on the dirt for three-year olds, Recruiting Ready was the winner by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:10.35. Ridden by Horacio Karamanos, Recruiting Ready paid $7.40 to win. Aquamarine, with Javier Castellano in the irons, was second and Three Rules, with Luis Saez abroad, was third.