BALTIMORE -- They don’t call it the Hopeful for nothing.
Thoroughbred races are named for a variety of reasons, frequently with proper names of people or horses in mind.
For example, the King’s Bishop, a Travers Day staple at Saratoga Race Course for years, was named for a pretty good horse, then renamed this year for a person, the late, great trainer Allen Jerkens, a terrific move by the New York Racing Association in honor of the Chief, who trained the horse.
After over 100 years, though, the Hopeful remains the Hopeful, and, unlike most races, it wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for a concept that is equally wishful and nebulous.
By the time the Saratoga season rolls around each summer, the good 2-year-olds are beginning to show their stuff, and one of the enduring appeals of the track is to wonder which of the babies on display will carry their sparkling early form through to the following spring, when they’re not babies anymore and Kentucky Derby fever and the Triple Crown trail swing into gear.
Six of the 20 horses in the Derby field two weeks ago raced at Saratoga last summer, including the winners of two of of the graded stakes for 2-year-olds, the Saratoga Special (Gunnevera) and the Hopeful (Practical Joke), as well as Always Dreaming, who was beaten a neck by Blame Will in a maiden race, but has done alright for himself, you could say, since that loss.
He won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and is chasing the Triple Crown as the morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 142nd Preakness at Pimlico.
He’s as good an illustration as any of the magic of 2-year-old racing at Saratoga, where you need to pay attention not only to big races like the Hopeful, but the maiden races that turn up on a daily basis.
In fact, the Sanford, Saratoga Special and Hopeful rarely produce winners who go on to win one of the Triple Crown classic races.
Of the three, the best gauge for future success in the Triple Crown, based on recent history, is the middle leg of the series, the Saratoga Special.
Exaggerator, the 2015 winner, went on to finish second in the Derby last year before winning the Preakness, Union Rags won the 2012 Belmont, Summer Squall won the 1990 Preakness and Swale won the 1984 Derby and Belmont.
Among Sanford winners, Afleet Alex went on to win the 2005 Preakness and Belmont after finishing third in the Derby. He also won the Hopeful, after which you have to go all the way back, again, to Summer Squall.
In the case of today’s Preakness favorite, Always Dreaming hasn’t lost since that second in the maiden race at Saratoga, not necessarily a late bloomer so much as a young horse who needed a little bit of time off to grow into himself and figure things out a little better.
Owner Anthony Bonomo of Brooklyn Boyz Stable likes to tell the story about how his son went way over budget when he picked up the Bodemeister colt for $350,000 at the 2015 Keeneland yearling sale, but trainer Todd Pletcher, who took over for Dominick Schettino when the colt was sent to his barn in September right after the Saratoga race, saw plenty of promise in the horse even before he took over his training.
“He was [on my radar], because I’d been on him for some other clients as a yearling and saw him run at Belmont and Saratoga, so I was familiar with him from his yearling year,” Pletcher said Friday morning outside the Preakness barn.
“We picked him up at the beginning of September and just felt like he wasn’t moving as well as he’s capable of, so we sent him to [James] Crupi’s farm to give him a little bit of a break. He came back to us in November, and I think that time off really did him a lot of good. Sometimes when you have talented 2-year-olds, you might give them a little break like we did with him, but every case is a little different.”
There’s no textbook way to get a good 2-year-old from Point A in the summer to Point Z the following spring. They’re still filling out their frames, for one thing, and it’s a steep learning curve from early starting gate lessons to managing to beat 19 rivals in the controlled chaos that is the Kentucky Derby.
But when you have one who shows talent at Saratoga, it’s natural to assume -- well, to hope -- that they can reach that point.
Around the same time that Always Dreaming came back to Pletcher in November, Blame Will, the horse he lost to at Saratoga the Saturday before the Travers, was winning a race at Churchill Downs. He hasn’t been heard from since.
Meanwhile, Classic Empire was in the starting gate for the Hopeful on closing day last Labor Day, and his goofball personality was on full display, as he veered out of the gate and chose not to run that day. He’s my pick to win the Preakness, as the talent that prompted his connections to try the Hopeful in the first place and also catapulted him to the 2-year-old championship did not get a chance to show itself in the Kentucky Derby.
He was banged around and wiped out early, but should be able to avoid that disaster in a 10-horse field today.
The time for hoping is over.