by Rick Snider

The morning railbirds have been whistling because Saturday’s Kentucky Derby winner will lead every step.

Always Dreaming has been loving his recent series of sunrise appearances over the Churchill Downs track. The son of 2012 Derby runnerup Bodemeister appears ready to dominate the year’s biggest race.

Indeed, look for Always Dreaming to lead from the start while favorite Classic Empire loses too much ground early while stuck in the outside No. 14 post position. That’s the difference in the race. When Classic Empire is steaming past rivals down the stretch, Always Dreaming will be too far ahead to catch.

It’s a low-paying 5-14 exacta by the two top choices with Hence getting third at 15-1 to provide some triple value. But, getting $10 for every $2 wagered to win isn’t a bad return on a two-minute investment.

Always Dreaming even has a real chance to win the Triple Crown. His front-running style is perfect for the shorter Preakness Stakes on May 20. The Belmont Stakes on June 10 is too far away to foretell, but front-runners have won it before.

Always Dreaming fits the Derby profile. There’s good breeding with Bodemeister, who is the son of one of the nation’s top stallions, Empire Maker. He has a seasoned Derby trainer in Pletcher while jockey John Velasquez won the 2011 Derby aboard Animal Kingdom.

Like most Derbies, there are a half dozen runners who could win. Aside Classic Empire and Hence, there’s also Girvin, Irap, Gormley and McCraken. And if Royal Mo draws into the race late, he’s a 20-1 long shot to use in triples.

But picking the Derby comes from only two angles – wire-to-wire front-runners and those lying fourth to sixth on the final turn with a history of big finishes. Always Dreaming has seldom not led in his three victories this season. While the Derby is often a cavalry charge to the first turn fueled by too much adrenaline by both horses and riders, Always Dreaming will remain on the lead when pretenders melt away on the backstretch.

Come the final eighth mile, Classic Empire won’t be far behind Always Dreaming. But, he’ll have expended too much energy weaving through the crowded field of 20 runners. Classic Empire will tease his backers, but Velasquez will find a final burst for Always Dreaming to polish off his rival and send the pair to the Preakness for a rematch.

And if it rains as expected, Classic Empire’s challenge will be even tougher dodging the mud kicked in his face while Always Dreaming runs so cleanly he’ll come up smelling like roses.

Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter @Snide_Remarks.


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