In its simplest form, handicapping Saturday’s Preakness (G1) is a referendum on Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Always Dreaming, and whether he’ll repeat the feat at Pimlico.

Because so many believe he will, Always Dreaming is the odds-on favorite to win again, and advance to the June 10 Belmont (G1) with the Triple Crown on the line.

It’s easy to see why. The winner of four straight for trainer Todd Pletcher, by a combined margin of nearly 23 lengths, Always Dreaming has shown an ability to carry high cruising speed over a route of ground. He attended a quick pace in the Kentucky Derby before punching clear, and there’s no compelling reason to think he won’t deliver a similar effort in Baltimore.

At the same time, the Derby didn’t resolve every open question. Always Dreaming carved out a perfect trip for himself given conditions on the day. Several of his principal rivals, on the other hand, didn’t have as beneficial a set-up, prompting thoughts of what might have been had circumstances been different.

The poster child for this argument is Classic Empire. Last year’s champion two-year-old colt after capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) in fast time, Classic Empire was knocked sideways at the start of Derby 143. Through no fault of his own, he couldn’t secure the favorable early position he wanted, and ended up covering more ground than nearly everyone else. Yet Classic Empire still closed for a solid fourth.

With a clean trip in the Preakness, couldn’t Classic Empire offer a serious challenge to Always Dreaming? Maybe even turn the tables? His connections, trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux, are eager for a fair chance to decide the matter. Drawn in post 5, just to the outside of Always Dreaming, Classic Empire promises to be in a cat-and-mouse game with the Derby winner every step of the way.

Similarly, Sunland Derby (G3) winner Hence just never got traction in the slop at Churchill Downs and wound up 11th. Considering that his Sunland Derby had been shaping as a key race, Hence is likely much better than he was able to show on Kentucky Derby Day. Back on a fast track at Pimlico, can’t the Steve Asmussen trainee bounce back, at likely bigger odds?

Hence’s stablemate, Lookin at Lee, had a superb trip in the Derby, riding the advantageous rail nearly all the way before rallying for second. Like Always Dreaming, Lookin at Lee excelled in the conditions, but how much was he capitalizing on the fact that others weren’t? Can he back it up in different circumstances here?

Fellow closer Gunnevera wasn’t as lucky in the Derby. After a troubled start and a wide trip, he could do no better than seventh. Again, a level playing field in the Preakness might put Gunnevera in a better light.

Yet even if one of Always Dreaming’s vanquished Derby rivals gets revenge at Pimlico, the result would underscore the field strength of the first jewel of the Triple Crown. 

That’s because five other horses who didn’t compete in the Derby are taking on the establishment in the Middle Jewel. These “new shooters” historically don’t fare as well in the Preakness as horses coming out of the Derby.

Preakness contenders hoping to buck this trend are Conquest Mo Money, most recently runner-up to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby (G1); Cloud Computing, who exits a third in the Wood Memorial (G2); Illinois Derby (G3) hero Multiplier; Lexington (G3) winner Senior Investment; and Term of Art, who adds blinkers off his seventh in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Conquest Mo Money and Cloud Computing are in a different category from the other newcomers to the Triple Crown: each had secured a spot in the starting gate for Derby 143, but their connections believed that the Preakness was a better fit for both horses. So you could claim that as Derby-coulda-beens, they may be more qualified than the typical “new shooter” in the Preakness.

As you can see, handicapping the Preakness is more compelling than just an up-or-down vote on Always Dreaming. For the same reason, Preakness betting offers plentiful options. If you think he’ll double up, you can simply bet him to win, notwithstanding his short odds. If you’re seeking a greater potential of return on investment by betting Always Dreaming, you can try to select who’ll finish second to him (forecasting the exacta), the third- and fourth-placers as well (trifecta and superfecta, respectively), all the way up to the first five finishers (Super High 5).

Or if you’re willing to take Always Dreaming on by backing another horse to win, chances are you’ll get value – i.e., the horse’s odds appear high, in your view, relative to his win chances.  

So how will you answer the question in the headline: Will the Preakness affirm the Derby result? 

Photo courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography