Always Dreaming won the race at a muddy Churchill Downs.
LOUISVILLE — In big money race after big money race, the combination of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez has been powerful across the country for nearly two decades. Now, their partnership has claimed the ultimate prize.
Always Dreaming, who didn’t break his maiden until Jan. 25 but showed his talent in Florida this spring with a series of stunning performances, delivered a powerful victory in the 143rd Kentucky Derby on Saturday, splashing through the Churchill Downs stretch 2 3/4 lengths in front of 33-to-1 longshot Lookin At Lee.
Though it was the second Derby victory for both Pletcher and Velazquez, winning it as a team was a long time coming.
“It’s very special,” said the 46-year old Velazquez, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom. “With all the success we’ve had in the past, winning important races, missing this one is definitely a big one. We’ve been 24 years together, something like that, and for him to still trust in me and give me an opportunity, it doesn’t happen often in this business.”
For Pletcher, this Kentucky Derby victory is a different kind of validation. Though he’s won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s top trainer and his barn annually leads the nation in earnings, his record in this race had become something of a burden. Before Saturday, Pletcher had sent 45 horses to the gate over 16 years, most of them regally bred and even more insanely hyped. Given all the high-priced horse flesh in his barn, it was viewed as a bit of a disappointment that his only Kentucky Derby victory came with Super Saver in 2010.
“I felt like I really needed that second one,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think I’m any better trainer than I was an hour ago, but I felt like another one would solidify it. The first was extra special and I have a tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win, but we needed another one as a team to put it together.”
Always Dreaming, who went off at 4.70-to-1, became the fifth straight betting favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Though the final time was a relatively slow 2:03.59 on a sloppy track, Always Dreaming sat second off a fast pace through the first half mile, took the lead heading into the far turn and impressively opened up when Velazquez asked him to accelerate.
While other horses who pressed the pace faded badly in the stretch, Always Dreaming finished with authority and heads to the Preakness in two weeks looking like a strong favorite to take that race as well. If he can win in Baltimore, he’ll give his Brooklyn born-and-bred owners the thrill of a lifetime, going for the Triple Crown in front of their home crowd in New York.
“This is the greatest feeling,” said Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola, who co-owns the horse with lifelong friend Anthony Bonomo. “We represent everybody who went to the racetrack for the first time with their dads and were astonished by the brilliance of these equine athletes and never fell out of love with the sport.”
It’s rare that a horse who started on the Kentucky Derby trail as late as Always Dreaming can get to the top so quickly. But from the moment he arrived in Pletcher’s barn from a winter freshening, he showed the talent to justify pointing him to this race. When he won the Florida Derby on April 1 by a commanding five lengths, the question wasn’t talent but whether he would have the experience to handle the 20-horse field and the fast pace.
Having Velazquez as a passenger helped significantly in that regard.
While other favorites like Irish War Cry, McCraken and Classic Empire were jostled at the start of the race and had a difficult time establishing position in the first quarter mile, Velazquez hustled Always Dreaming out of the gate and secured a favorable spot on the rail and in the clear.
“His first step, I wasn’t too happy,” Velazquez said. “The second I had to ask him to straighten up and once I got under the wire for the first time, I was happy where I was. I took a hold of him as soon as I got to the backstretch and he was really comfortable.”
Though Always Dreaming pressed longshot State of Honor through a very fast half mile of 46.53 seconds, he was moving easily. And by the time other contenders put in their bids around the far turn, it was too late, especially over a track that had been pounded by rain for the better part of two days.
Classic Empire, the morning line favorite, got up for fourth despite getting almost wiped out when the gates opened. Irish War Cry, who went off as the second choice, faded to 10th.
“It’s surreal,” Bonomo said. “I played the race in my mind all week and it came out the way I was dreaming about it. I guess dreams do come true.”
PHOTOS: Best of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs