SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – In a sense, the greatest challenge for a Kentucky Derby winner comes after the youngster is draped in a blanket of red roses.
The 3-year-old almost surely ran the best race of his young career on the first Saturday in May. Then he is asked to produce a similar huge effort several more times if he is to win the Eclipse Award as the champion of his class.
2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming faces that daunting task in a historic edition of the Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, which will be televised on NBC from 4:30 - 6 p.m. ET.
“I don’t think there is any doubt we had him ready to peak in the Kentucky Derby, and that was our goal,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “Now, we have to get him back to that.”
Anything less will almost surely result in defeat since this Travers brings together the individual winners of the three Triple Crown races for the first time in 35 years and only the third time in the 148-year history of the race.
Preakness Stakes victor Cloud Computing and Tapwrit, the best in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, join Always Dreaming as part of a talent-laden 12-horse field.
“The race is going to require a champion’s effort by the winner,” said Vinnie Viola, part of Always Dreaming’s ownership group.
Always Dreaming looked virtually unbeatable when he rattled off four consecutive victories to open this season, with the last two of those a five-length rout in the Xpressbet Florida Derby and a 2 ¾-length score in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
The colt did not handle the swift two-week turnaround to the Preakness, coming up empty. After setting the early pace, he quickly retreated to eighth, dusted by 14 lengths. He showed improvement when he returned to competition in the Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on July 29 at Saratoga, but again weakened to be third, 5 ¼ lengths behind Good Samaritan.
Pletcher, knowing more progress will be needed, is confident that is coming.
“We’ve done a better job with him coming into this race,” he said. “Honestly, I think we probably left him a little short for the Jim Dandy. I wasn’t anticipating quite as demanding of a racetrack that it turned out to be at that time.”
The Bodemeister colt has worked twice since the Jim Dandy. He traveled a half-mile in :48.83 on Aug. 11, which ranked 12th of 53 workouts at the distance. On Aug. 18, he was timed in :49.60 for the same distance, 16th of 54.
“I think the race and two good breezes should move him forward,” Pletcher said.
Anthony Bonomo, another of Always Dreaming’s owners, is so optimistic that he believes the colt has yet to fire his best shot.
“I don’t know if it will be in this race or another race,” he said, “but I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of him.”
Others are more skeptical of the Derby winner. Always Dreaming, who will break from post-position seven with regular rider John Velazquez aboard, is listed as the fourth choice in the morning line at 6-1. Tapwrit, his stablemate, is a mild favorite at 7-2, followed by Bob Baffert trainee West Coast at 4-1 and Good Samaritan at 5-1. Good Samaritan successfully transitioned from turf to dirt in the Jim Dandy for Bill Mott, his Hall of Fame trainer.
History suggests pretty much anything could happen. Thirty-five years ago, Runaway Groom’s last-to-first rush toppled Gato Del Sol (Derby winner), Aloma’s Ruler (Preakness) and heavily favored Conquistador Cielo (Belmont). In 1918, Sun Briar brought down Exterminator (Derby winner), War Cloud (Preakness) and Johren (Belmont).
Since Always Dreaming is the only multiple Grade 1 winner in the field with the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, a Travers victory would go a long way toward securing the 2017 Eclipse Award as the head of his class.
“I think if he wins this race,” Viola said, “he’s odds-on for 3-year-old champion.”