BOZICH | Dodging flying rocks to pick Preakness winner with D. W - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Dodging flying rocks to pick Preakness winner with D. Wayne Lukas

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Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas (left) huddled with Derby winner Todd Pletcher at Pimlico Friday morning. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas (left) huddled with Derby winner Todd Pletcher at Pimlico Friday morning.

BALTIMORE (WDRB) -- It was a few ticks before 5:30 a.m. in Baltimore. WDRB sports director Tom Lane and I were finishing our drive to Pimlico, hurrying to beat sunrise so we could watch trainer Todd Pletcher take his Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming to the track Friday, one day before the Preakness.

We were one block from Pimlico, looking for the parking lot entrance. We found an adventure.

BOOM!!!!

Just one loud sound, but definitely a BOOM!!!!

I turned to Tom, who was driving.

Blown tire? Imaginary sound stirred by lack of sleep? Gunshot?

"Some kids just threw a rock at our car," Lane said.

At 5:30 a.m.?

Better a rock than a bullet, right? Keep driving. Get inside the parking lot.

We did. I'm not sure if any more rocks were thrown. We were only hit once.

If the folks who own Pimlico truly are debating investing $300 million into upgrading this sagging facility on the edge of a troubled neighborhood or moving the second leg of the Triple Crown to nearby Laurel, consider this a vote for moving vans.

Our gray mini-SUV took a legitimate hit on the rear passenger side, inches from a shattered window. I shared the story with Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a man who won the Preakness six times from 1980-through-2013 and loves Baltimore.

Lukas was not surprised.

Make that two votes for Laurel.

"The Preakness is not this building and not this track," Lukas said. "The Preakness is these people (that run the race).

"The thing that makes this so special is not the facility. The facility is a major problem and headache -- for them. But the people who run this thing are so damn good at making your feel comfortable and good and even making it good for the people who come to the race. That's the difference."

If you're coming to Pimlico, my first tip is beware flying rocks. Now, on to the race.

Lukas and I agree on another thing: Always Dreaming will outrun nine challengers over 1 and 3/16ths mile Saturday afternoon and be in position to become racing's 13th Triple Crown winner June 10 at Belmont Park in New York.

"I think Todd is more comfortable here than he was before the Derby," Lukas said. "That horse didn't really settle into Churchill Downs very well. He's much better here. Always Dreaming is a very talented horse."

Can I get a second? There were plenty around the Pimlico stakes barn Friday morning.

"We had a lot of things going against us in the Derby," said Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire. "Hopefully that changes.

"The problem is Always Dreaming is a really, really good horse and we still might not be able to beat him. But we're going to give it one heck of a try."

If Always Dreaming is the colt that makes Casse fret, Classic Empire is the horse most likely to give Pletcher indigestion. The Derby winner is 4-5 in the morning line, followed by Classic Empire at 3-1. Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee (10-1) and Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money (15-1) are considered serious contenders, too.

But not as serious as Classic Empire, who finished fourth in the Derby while overcoming a collision outside the No. 14 starting gate. Then the colt had a challenging trip that pushed jockey Julien Leparoux three horses wide off the rail. Casse calculated that Classic Empire ran 75 more feet than the winner and 90 more than the runner-up.

He finished about eight lengths behind the winner, but Casse's numbers gleaned from a sensor in his colt's saddlecloth tell him that the wide trip cost Classic Empire at least nine lengths.

"The only thing I learned out of it is that anything can happen," Casse said. "You know what? I'm surprised he ran as well as he did. A lot of horses would have just not shown up at all. He kept trying. I think maybe that race impressed me more than some of his victories."

Lukas agreed that Classic Empire was compromised. He does not agree that a better trip in the Preakness will benefit the challenger.

"They're the two best horses," Lukas said. "But my experience has been that when a horse has had a really rough race in the Derby, which Classic Empire did, where he didn't get a very good trip and things kind of went awry all the way around there, it seems like that’s tough for them to overcome in the next one.

"He's quality. He's a really good horse in top form as far as I can see, but it may affect him a little bit here. Maybe not."

A bigger question: Will Classic Empire's best be better than the best of Always Dreaming?

"I actually think Always Dreaming looks better this week than he did at the Derby and I watched him pretty close," Lukas said. "I think he can get it."

Pletcher has never won the Preakness. He’s 0 for 8. His jockey, John Velasquez, is 0 for 7 in this race. They would be happy to deal with three weeks of Triple Crown questions and hype. But not yet.

"I try not to think about that," Pletcher said. "We're focused on the Preakness and take it literally one race at a time. It's exciting to be in that position to possibly have that opportunity.

"Hopefully we'll be in position to think about that Saturday night."

Happy Preakness -- and beware flying rocks.

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