April 22, 2024

‘Empire arguably best in Preakness; Pimlico Special not at all your Dad’s version

Cloud Computing (left) outdueled Classic Empire to the wire in the 2017 Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico (c) Matt Wooley/EquiSport Photos

Going into Saturday’s Preakness (G1) I envisioned one of two scenarios occurring. The first required that I take the results of the Kentucky Derby (G1) at face value. That is I had to believe Always Dreaming, despite any favorable circumstances he may have encountered in the wet conditions at Churchill Downs, was the best horse in the crop and potentially would face a race flow in the Preakness similar to the one he had in the Derby.

This scenario also required a replacement for Derby pace setter State of Honor, namely Conquest Mo Money, to provide a target for Always Dreaming to chase from a stalking position. If Always Dreaming was indeed good enough and best, then he would take over from the less-classy rival at some point and assert his superiority again, putting him in line for a Triple Crown sweep at Belmont Park.

The other scenario, which I had heavily leaned toward the last two weeks, was that the form of the Derby would be exposed in some fashion. As I wrote on the evening of the Derby after watching a replay of the race numerous times, the three inside paths were seemingly the place to be in the 1 1/4-mile classic. Always Dreaming was never far from the rail the entire way, longshot Lookin at Lee saved ground throughout and out-finished seemingly more talented rivals for the place, and Battle of Midway, stalking the top pair in the three path, spurned a challenge from the outside-pursuing Irish War Cry in upper stretch and held third by a length.

I maintained respect for Always Dreaming and, to a much lesser extent, Lookin at Lee, going into Saturday, enough to put saver tickets using the Derby winner on top and Lookin at Lee in the lower rungs of my exotics. However, my primary wagers involved keying Classic Empire, who took the worst of it at the start of the Derby and still rallied bravely ran on for fourth after a highly unfavorable overland bid, on top. Given the situation in Louisville I felt he had run the best race, and given better luck in Baltimore would prove best.

The scenario I favored was nearly right, though some might argue not for the reasons I suggest. Conquest Mo Money broke slow and was never seriously involved, thus leaving the pace-setting duties to the Derby winner. Classic Empire got the clean break he needed, pressed Always Dreaming into submission, but ultimately lost the war. After building up a big lead in the stretch, his pace-pressing exertions caught up with him in the final yards as “new shooter” Cloud Computing, who watched and waited as the two favorites did the dirty work, came along and picked up the pieces to win by a head.

For the second time this month, Classic Empire arguably ran the best race and lost, while Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing achieved classic glory after enjoying more favorable trips. Always Dreaming, on the basis of his wins in the Florida Derby (G1) and Kentucky Derby, might narrowly win if the Eclipse Award vote were held today. Cloud Computing is obviously talented and could very well build on this victory, but given what he’s gone through it’s not a stretch to think Classic Empire may be the best of this trio.

Always Dreaming was clearly the disappointment of the race. While I could envision him losing to Classic Empire, finishing out of the money was a bit beyond my predictive scope. However, that wasn’t unprecedented. Of the last nine horses to have won the Derby on an off track, including Always Dreaming, four have gone unplaced in the Preakness.

Two of those four have been trained by Todd Pletcher, the other being Super Saver (2010). Rather than chalk up Always Dreaming’s regression exclusively to a less-favorable trip, some observers are willing to place more emphasis on the two-week turnaround. I can see that point as well, and it begs the question whether Todd Pletcher will ever win a Preakness. He’s not alone in hoping to get as many of his best three-year-olds into the Derby starting gate and, barring success in Louisville, having adequate ammo for the Belmont (G1) five weeks later. However, the two-week gap between the Derby and Preakness simply hasn’t jibed with his typical training regimen. Perhaps it never will.

The Pimlico Special is not really the Special

There was some chatter over the weekend regarding the aesthetic demise of the Pimlico Special (G3). While Friday’s winner, Shaman Ghost, is a top-flight older horse, head-to-head with Gun Runner in the pecking order behind the other-worldly Arrogate, there wasn’t a whole lot of substance to the field.

It’s safe to chalk up the reason for this being the presence of the Dubai World Cup (G1), a race which tends to keep its American participants off the track back home until mid-June at the earliest. That, in turn, has hurt the quality and depth of races with rich histories, such as the Santa Anita H. (G1), New Orleans H. (G2), Oaklawn H. (G2) and Californian (G2). The recent rise in importance of races like the Charles Town Classic (G2) and Alysheba (G2), plus the presence of the Excelsior (G3) and Ben Ali (G3), have compounded the problem of having too many races chasing too few horses. Modern training methods, which require horses needing a bare minimum of four weeks (usually 6-8) between starts, perhaps is an even bigger factor.

However, I simply couldn’t join in the chorus lamenting the demise in importance of the Special because it simply isn’t what people think it is. The Pimlico Special that was re-born in 1988 after a three-decade hiatus and quickly achieved Grade 1 status literally died in the three-year period from 2009-11 when the Maryland Jockey Club was struggling financially and couldn’t justify applying scarce resources to save it. It had twice canceled the race, in 2002 and 2007, for the same reason.

When the Special wasn’t run in either 2009 or 2010, the race was stripped of its graded status. If the MJC had wanted to bring the Special back, it would have had to go through a two-year waiting period for its grade to be re-instated. Even then there would have been no guarantee it would have earned its Grade 1 status back, not only because of the plethora of competing races mentioned above, but the MJC simply didn’t have the money, nor does now, of funding it as adequately ($500,000 or above) as it did from 1988-2006.

To avoid this hurdle, in 2012 the MJC simply re-branded the William Donald Schaefer, a Grade 3 event held Preakness weekend, as the Pimlico Special. Most everyone knows and remembers when this happened, but there seems to be some belief out there that there’s some continuity between the Special of today and the Special of a decade ago. There isn’t.

Far be it from me to want to give the American Graded Stakes Committee more power and influence, but its stripping of the Special’s Grade 1 ranking in 2010 was officially the end of the Special as we knew it. What is now the Pimlico Special is simply the William Donald Schaefer wearing a different nametag.

If by waving the wand or shuffling papers you transfer a certain race’s grade to another race by way of re-naming, etc., you’ve inherited the previous race’s history. That’s my opinion anyway, thus there’s no need to lament the demise in stature of a race that never rose above a Grade 3-quality event anyway.