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USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken breaks down Always Dreaming’s impressive win at Churchill Downs and explains why this horse is a legitimate contender for the Triple Crown.
USA TODAY Sports

LOUISVILLE — Trainer Todd Pletcher’s playbook often does not include the Preakness, preferring to take his Kentucky Derby horses back to his home base in New York to prepare for the Belmont Stakes or big races later in the summer.

But with Always Dreaming, who won the 143rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday, there wasn’t much doubt where he was headed next. After Pletcher joked after the race that he wouldn’t have to “twist anybody’s arm” to get the owners’ approval for Baltimore, he made firm plans Sunday morning to ship the horse to Pimlico on Tuesday. With all physical indicators pointing toward Always Dreaming bouncing out of the Kentucky Derby in good shape, he will move on as the heavy favorite for the May 20 Preakness, trying to become the fifth horse in the last 10 years to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

“He’s outstanding,” Pletcher told reporters Sunday morning. “He ate up really well last night. His energy level is good this morning. He looks super.”

The same cannot be said of several other runners in the Kentucky Derby, which turned into a rough-and-tumble race that compromised the chances of Always Dreaming’s main competitors.

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After Irish War Cry veered right after the gates opened, causing a chain reaction that forced McCracken to slam into Classic Empire, those three horses were all facing an uphill battle to get position around the first turn. The only one who recovered well enough to run a representative race was Classic Empire, who finished fourth and was listed by trainer Mark Casse as a possibility for the Preakness. McCraken is off the Triple Crown trail after suffering a cut on his left hind leg, trainer Ian Wilkes said, while Irish War Cry is also unlikely to go to Baltimore.

Among those who finished behind Always Dreaming, there were no hard commitments for the Preakness, though second-place finisher Lookin At Lee is a possibility, as well as seventh place Gunnevera and Girvin, who encountered serious traffic problems at the start and the far turn, eventually finishing 13th.

There will undoubtedly be some newcomers waiting for Always Dreaming in Baltimore, including Royal Mo, who was third in the Santa Anita Derby but didn’t have enough points to qualify for the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field (he was 21st in the standings). Still, it appears the Preakness may come up a bit light on quality this year, boosting the chances that Always Dreaming will head to Belmont on June 10 trying to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.

The last one, of course, was American Pharoah, with whom Always Dreaming shares…