You can look at what happened in Baltimore last weekend in one of two ways.
The negative way of thinking: horse racing takes a major blow with no Triple Crown on the line at Belmont Park in three weeks.
The positive way of thinking: the 3-Year-Old Horse of the Year competition just got a lot more entertaining, and the big summer races at Monmouth and Saratoga, as well as the Breeders’ Cup, have become extremely important.
We have a similar story lined up in front of us this year. We will once again have three different Triple Crown race winners, and once again, the summer of racing cannot get any bigger. This year may be even better than last year. Last year only had two main headliners, Nyquist and Exaggerator, but this year, we have three. Cloud Computing, Classic Empire, and Always Dreaming make up a very intriguing and puzzling three-headed monster that’s likely to dominate racing headlines for the next several months. These three are tough to separate, and speculating who wins if all three bring their “A Game” sparks quite the debate.
Making a Case for All Three
Making a case that all three belong in the discussion is rather easy. Simply look at their Past Performances to notice how similar these three horses are on the speed and talent levels. In fact, their lifetime-high Beyer speed figures are identical (102).
Let’s start with Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming. He might be the easiest one to make a case for; he’s accomplished the most so far in 2017. His two Grade 1 wins (the Kentucky and Florida Derbies) trump Classic Empire and Cloud Computing, who each have one Grade 1 win. Always Dreaming blew out the competition in both of his stakes victories, and he did win the biggest race of the year for his division. He was a complete no-show in the Preakness, but if he gets back to form in time for the summer, you could say that he’s the flashiest and most talented 3-year-old in the country.
At this point, by far the classiest and most consistent of the three is Classic Empire. After suffering an injury and regularly displaying crazy antics, such as outright refusing to train in the mornings, he came very close to missing the Kentucky Derby. Thankfully, he calmed down just in time for the Arkansas Derby, and despite a rough trip, he was victorious while not yet 100%. He had a nightmarish trip in the Kentucky Derby but never quit and finished a respectable fourth. Two weeks later in the Preakness, his third race in five weeks, he put away Always Dreaming with ease and nearly held off Cloud Computing, only losing by a head.
However, as good as Classic Empire looks at this moment, you can absolutely make a strong case for Cloud Computing, the horse that beat him in the Preakness. Cloud Computing made huge strides with a dramatic improvement to pull off the upset. While many felt that the fast pace softened Classic Empire on the front end, notice that no horse made up ground on him – except for Cloud Computing. If not for Cloud Computing, we’d easily be crowning Classic Empire as the best horse in the crop. Cloud Computing running down the leader when trailing by 3 lengths off the turn for home is not something to take lightly.
Star Trainers in the Game
The horses aren’t the only facet of this debate. Other than Bob Baffert (wouldn’t it be something if he had a healthy Mastery to throw into the mix?), the three horses’ trainers are the game’s most recognizable faces. Chad Brown is coming off of his first Eclipse Award and his first Saratoga training title. The Preakness Stakes was his first win in a Triple Crown race, but rest assured, there are MANY more of these to come for Brown. At his relatively young age (38), I dare to say that many training records could eventually be in jeopardy at the rate he’s winning.
While Brown continues to rise, don’t forget about the guy who’s been at the top for seemingly forever. Todd Pletcher continues to win at a stellar rate. Pletcher, who won his first Kentucky Derby in 2010, still had a monkey on his back that finally left when he took his second with Always Dreaming. His stable is as loaded as ever, including several 3-year-olds that will make an impact in the months to come. When it comes to east coast racing, Chad and Todd are the dominant duo that everyone respects.
The rise in power of Mark Casse and his son, Norm, has been outstanding, and they look ready to join the ranks of Pletcher and Brown. Casse has been a successful trainer for many years, but he recently reached new heights, thanks to horses like Tepin, Catch a Glimpse, Noble Bird, World Approval, and Classic Empire. The Casses might be the most fan-friendly trainers in the game. Norm is tremendously accessible on Twitter, keeping fans both informed and entertained, and handles interviews and public appearances extremely well. The success of the Casses is evident, and they really, REALLY want to win one of the three big Triple Crown races. As long as they keep getting these kinds of horses, I don’t envision that being a problem. Their time is coming, and it could certainly be said that the job they did just getting the often-problematic Classic Empire to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was fantastic.
Before making my pick to win, I felt that it was prudent to gauge what the racing community thought. It’s a fun debate heading into the Belmont Stakes and summer racing. Below are the results of a recent Racing Dudes Twitter Poll, as well as comments from six different racing fans/experts.
All things being equal and all horses being fully ready and rested…who wins between Cloud Computing, Always Dreaming, and Classic Empire?
— Racing Dudes (@racing_dudes) May 22, 2017
Racing legend Jon White says… “My first thought is, it would be difficult for me to say Classic Empire wins because he did not win the Derby or the Preakness. But, on the other hand, cumulatively, Classic Empire did the best with a troubled fourth and a close second, whereas Always Dreaming had a win and an eighth, and Cloud Computing had a did-not-start and a win.
An illustration of just how hard it is to separate these three, Always Dreaming got a 102 Beyer in the Derby, while Cloud Computing and Classic Empire each got a 102 in the Preakness. So, I could be a wise guy and say it would be a triple dead heat. But all things being equal and all horses being fully rested and ready, I would say Classic Empire wins because he was able to run Always Dreaming into the ground and still almost beat Cloud Computing in the Preakness.
Always Dreaming’s Preakness performance was so bad that I could not trust him enough to say he wins. Cloud Computing capitalized on Classic Empire having to try and beat Always Dreaming in the Preakness. In other words, if Always Dreaming was not in the race, I think Classic Empire would have won, not Cloud Computing. That’s why I would say, all things being equal and all horses being fully rested and ready, I think Classic Empire, not Cloud Computing, wins.”
Avid handicapper and bettor Jared Black says… “Flip a coin between Classic Empire and Always Dreaming. I’d lean towards Always Dreaming when fresh, but I wouldn’t reach deep in my pockets to bet it.”
Racing super fan and historian Ryan Stillman says… “I honestly don’t know the answer to who would win the race with the proper amount of rest and all things equal between those three horses, but I believe it would be either Classic Empire or Cloud Computing. My gut says Classic Empire. Classic Empire only lost by a head, so with that small of a margin, you have to think, if a few things change, he would have possibly won.
Was rest the difference maker? Maybe. Maybe not. My thinking is that the Preakness usually goes to the best horse of the three classics, and that when the Preakness is over, we usually know who the best horse of the generation is … so in this crop, I think it’s very fitting that the result left us with more questions than answers. I cannot think of a more form-full result from this 3-year-old class of horses.”
Racing handicapper and bettor Zack Gillham says… “I take whoever draws outside of the other if there isn’t any speed, but I would have to say Classic Empire if forced to choose. He has run two good races in the Triple Crown.”
Racing expert Mike “Saratoga Slim” Spector says… “With all three of these horses being fully rested, my first reaction is to say that, (on his best day with none of his previous antics) Classic Empire would be able to beat both Cloud Computing and Always Dreaming. His Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win may still be the best race run by a horse in this crop, and he has gotten back to that level running game in his troubled-trip Kentucky Derby and putting away Always Dreaming in the Preakness. He obviously didn’t win either race, but he showed the talent and grittiness in both races that only true champions demonstrate.
The key to Classic Empire beating these two foes may be how Cloud Computing progresses off his Preakness win, though. If Cloud Computing has another gear to take his game to an even higher level than his Preakness, then he may dominate going forward, but that is not a certainty. Did we see Cloud Computing’s peak performance in the Preakness, or is there more there? That’s the biggest question to answer when trying to assess the question of who would win this three-way match-up.
One last note: Always Dreaming has a lot of work to get himself back up to his top form. The two weeks between the Derby and Preakness did not jive with the Pletcher program, and it may be difficult to get Always Dreaming back on track in the coming months to fire his best going forward.”
RacingDudes.com co-owner Jared Welch says… “All things being equal, horses being rested, and assuming a standard 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 race, I would have to back Classic Empire. He’s proved to be the more versatile horse between he and Always Dreaming, and Cloud Computing still has more to prove before I would feel confident backing him.
Having said that, if ranking the horses as to what they’ve done as 3-year-olds, I would have to rank Always Dreaming on top, Classic Empire, and then Cloud Computing. It’s been a tough year so far to handicap this crop, and the second half the year will tell us a lot.”
I was more than surprised with the results of the Twitter Poll and the comments from the people above. Classic Empire seems to be the overwhelming choice of the public, but I disagree. When analyzing both Triple Crown races, it’s certainly splitting hairs trying to pick a winner. They’ve all run similar speed figures, and they’ve all had their big moments. However, picking Classic Empire, who was beaten in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, over the the two horses that beat him? That blows my mind.
As far as the Kentucky Derby, I understand giving Classic Empire a pass. In the Preakness, I also understand the logic that Classic Empire ran too good to lose, and while that might be true, he did indeed still lose the race. What was his excuse? I don’t think he has one, to be honest. He turned for home with a commanding lead and was run down by Cloud Computing. Both horses got great trips, so it’s hard for me to say that, if they both got perfect trips again, Classic Empire would turn the tables on Cloud Computing.
Also, Cloud Computing’s best days may be ahead of him. Classic Empire is certainly a warrior of a horse, but how many times can he continue to run tough races without starting to tail off? Cloud Computing is lightly raced, and trainer Chad Brown will be conservative with his races to give him plenty of time to rest. For that reason, my pick would be Cloud Computing… but what about Always Dreaming? Well, if you follow Todd Pletcher at all, you know that, when horses goes in the wrong direction with him, it takes time for them to come back into form. So the major question becomes can this horse even reagin his top form? I’m not confident that Always Dreaming will come back as the same horse he was in Florida or Kentucky Derby day. Even if he does, once again, Cloud Computing’s ceiling could be a little higher than Always Dreaming at this point.
In the end, we can only hope that these three stars of the 2017 crop will match up against each other this summer. Based on the speculation of their summer schedules, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga looks to be the most likely race towards which the three of them could be pointing. It’s only fitting that Saratoga Race Course will decide a debate like this, as that is the place where champions come to prove themselves. Who will win the race is very much in question, but the real winner of a showdown between “The Big 3” will be the sport of horse racing. We could really use a summer showdown.