If you want to know about the Preakness, especially if you want to know how to win the race, there’s only one person to ask.
And there he was sitting by himself early Friday morning in a plastic chair on the shedrow of the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course. The familiar cowboy hat was perched atop his head. Sunglasses adorned his face. He wasn’t doing much, just waiting to instill wisdom on whoever wanted it.
Wayne Lukas — only those who don’t really know horse racing use the “D” before his name — ambled over to the fence and proclaimed morning-line favorite and Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming as his top choice in Saturday’s running of the 142nd Preakness Stakes.
“I actually think he looks better to me this week than he did at the Derby,” Lukas said. “I watched him pretty close. I think he can get it. I think the next one [Belmont Stakes] is going to be the tough one for him.”
Lukas knows more about running in the second leg of the Triple Crown than any other trainer. He has saddled 41 horses in the Preakness, almost double the second-place trainer.
He won the race six times. Only Bob Baffert has done that in the modern era.
The 81-year-old Lukas hasn’t started a horse in the Preakness in two years, as he is winding down, but not stopping, his career as a trainer.
He’s also had a who’s who of assistant trainers who have gone on to great success: Mark Hennig, Mike Maker and Kieran McLaughlin among others.
Also, this other guy named Todd Pletcher, who will be saddling Always Dreaming.
“If you work for someone for seven years, you certainly learn a lot of things from him,” Pletcher said of Lukas. “I always thought that one of his many strengths was when he got a horse in form, his ability to maintain him. You try and take some of those principles away.”
Lukas says keeping form is actually the key to winning the Preakness.
“My experience at the Preakness is the horses that do well at the Derby come back in two weeks and do well here,” Lukas said. “I don’t look for any big surprises. Not with this field anyhow. I think those horses that are 1-2-3-4-5 will probably be the ones on the board.”
The small field of 10 in the Preakness shouldn’t make traffic an issue as it did in the Kentucky Derby. Pretty much anyone who wants to make a run for the lead can have it. Then the first turn should start to shake things out.
“A lot of people don’t realize it but in the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, half of the race is on turns,” Lukas said. “Horses tire on the turn. They run much better on the straightaways. If you can get to the turn without using up a lot of energy to get to the backside, get yourself in position for the second turn, you probably got a pretty good chance.”
The best early hoof will be coming from Conquest Mo Money, who will be breaking from the 10. He’s a speed horse who was run down in the stretch by Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby.
It’s also expected that Always Dreaming or Classic Empire, breaking from the four and five, will be close or on the lead.
“If we broke running we may be on the lead,” said Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire. “He’s a very fast horse. Just look at the Breeders Cup [where he won the Juvenile]. … It will be up to [jockey] Julien [Leparoux]. As long as we get a clean break, we’ll be up close.”
Pletcher sees Classic Empire as having an advantage by being one spot outside of his horse.
“I think it’s an ideal spot for Classic Empire,” Pletcher said. “If I were them, I’d be happy with that post. I imagine they are going to target us. It probably gives him a little bit of a tactical advantage.”
Lukas offers a cautionary tale based on Classic Empire’s Derby run.
Breaking from the 14, Classic Empire was the victim of a chain reaction where Irish War Cry crashed into McCraken, who then banged into Classic Empire.
“[Always Dreaming and Classic Empire] are the two best horses,” Lukas said “But my experience is when a horse has a really rough race in the Derby, which Classic Empire did, where he really didn’t get a good trip and things kind of went awry all the way around, it seems like it’s tough for them to overcome in the next one.”
The Preakness is the shortest of the three Triple Crown races at 1 3/16ths of a mile. The Kentucky Derby is 1/16th , or half a furlong, longer, and the Belmont is 1 ½ miles.
Exactly half the field ran in the Kentucky Derby, which Lukas says is an advantage, especially for Always Dreaming.
“If you can beat them once you can beat them again if they are physically OK, and I think Todd’s horse is,” Lukas said. “The thing is when they are battle tested with a 20-horse field in the Derby, this one here isn’t as big an obstacle to overcome. I’d have to go with a horse that’s been there done that.”
So it’s clear Lukas is firmly behind Pletcher’s 3-year-old colt. So how does he fill out the ticket — for entertainment purposes only.
“Then I like Classic Empire,” Lukas said. “And I also like Steve Asmussen’s horses [Hence and Lookin at Lee]. If I were playing a superfecta, I’d put Steve’s two horses in and maybe the Venezuelan guy too. [Antonio Sano, trainer of Gunnevera] He might be all right.”
The weather for Saturday’s race is expected to be perfect. The question is if Always Dreaming will still be perfect on his Triple Crown quest.