‘Dream­ing’ comes true at Ken­tucky Derby

Pletcher, Ve­lazquez earn sec­ond vic­to­ries in race as fa­vorite pre­vails at rain-soaked Churchill Downs

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEPPER

louisville — For con­text of the great ca­reer whoosh of Al­ways Dream­ing, the lat­est Ken­tucky Derby win­ner, con­sider that his first win came Jan. 25, later than any horse who ul­ti­mately would be­come draped in roses since Bro­kers Tip in 1933, who was the only horse to break his maiden in the Derby.

Con­sider that at the end of March, well after Al­ways Dream­ing’s ri­vals had be­gun to ac­crue points in the Derby’s five-yearold points qual­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, this son of 2012 Derby run­ner-up Bode­meis­ter still had zero points. That’s partly be­cause Todd Pletcher, his star trainer, opted to give him more “foun­da­tion” and “ed­u­ca­tion” by run­ning him in an al­lowance race March 4 at Gulf­stream Park on Foun­tain of Youth day, in­stead of in the ac­tual Foun­tain of Youth.

It seemed he learned lit­tle that day while win­ning what Pletcher called “an af­ter­noon work­out” on a very slow track.

Yet when the usual throng gath­ered at the top of the stretch of the 143rd Ken­tucky Derby on Satur­day evening, there among those in good po­si­tion bounced Al­ways Dream­ing, the colt who didn’t race be­tween last Aug. 20 and this Jan. 25. He made jockey John Ve­lazquez say later, “I was very happy when I started down the lane and I felt the way he was run­ning.” He helped him­self to a two-length lead.

He faced no drama the rest of the way, keep­ing his lead, adding three-quar­ters of a length to it by the fin­ish and best­ing a cou­ple of long shots, sec­ond-place Lookin At Lee and third-place Bat­tle Of Mid­way, with the once-fa­vored Clas­sic Em­pire in fourth. By his fin­ish in 2:03.59 on a track ruled fast-wet be­fore a crowd of 158,070, he had gone from an im­pres­sive be­ing at the edge of the sport’s con­scious­ness by New Year’s Day to the top of it by the first Satur­day in May.

Fur­ther, he had given a sec­ond Derby win among 48 starters to Pletcher, the ca­reer win­ner of 4,300 races, 1,000 stakes and $336 mil­lion, $60 mil­lion more than any other trainer, who yet found val­i­da­tion with this sec­ond win, fol­low­ing on Su­per Saver in 2010. “To me, I felt I really needed that sec­ond one, you know?” he said. Fur­ther still, he gave a first vic­tory to the team of Pletcher and Ve­lazquez, each of whom had won once be­fore with­out the other, Ve­lazquez in 2011 aboard An­i­mal King­dom. Beyond that, there came a first Derby win with a first Derby horse for the own­er­ship team of An­thony Bonomo and Vin­nie Vi­ola, child­hood friends from Brook­lyn.

“Grow­ing up as a kid, we’ve won a lot of Ken­tucky Der­bies,” said Bonomo, a lawyer, “but never in re­al­ity.”

Pur­chased in Septem­ber 2015 at Keeneland in Ken­tucky for $350,000 — Bonomo joked that his son, An­thony Jr., “over­spent,” but that he no longer be­lieves so — Al­ways Dream­ing had done all of this after his hia­tus last sum­mer and fall after Pletcher took him on last early Septem­ber. Upon his re­turn in win­ter from what Pletcher called a “fresh­en­ing,” the trainer said, “We could see right away as soon as we were breez­ing him that he had ex­traspe­cial tal­ent.”

By Satur­day, he hit the gate in post No. 5 as the first choice among bet­tors, poised to be­come the fifth straight fa­vorite to win a race that used to scorn fa­vorites. Hav­ing ar­rived at the Florida Derby on April 1 with no points, he had hogged 100 there with a cap­ti­vat­ing run, win­ning by five lengths with the best time (1:47.47) since Aly­dar in 1978. And he had done it after ar­riv­ing in Churchill Downs and pretty much in­di­cat­ing he felt ready to go right away, a mat­ter that did stoke some con­cern around the barn, as Pletcher switched ex­er­cise rid­ers among other tweaks.

“We also felt he was set­ting on go al­most to the point our main fo­cus was just try­ing to de­liver it at 6:45 on Satur­day and not 6:45 on Thurs­day morn­ing,” Pletcher said.

He de­liv­ered it at the proper 6:45, and Pletcher’s mild gam­ble from March had paid off. The third-place fin­isher in the Florida Derby earns 20 points, and the low­est Ken­tucky Derby qual­i­fier had 30. “There was some risk with that plan,” he said, “be­cause by not go­ing in the Foun­tain of Youth, he had no points at that stage of his ca­reer. But we felt like we were all com­fort­able tak­ing our best shot at the Florida Derby as his only points-el­i­gi­ble prep. And we all were com­fort­able with the fact that if some­thing hap­pened and he didn’t earn enough points, that we were will­ing to live with that de­ci­sion.”

In ret­ro­spect, he didn’t seem to need the ed­u­ca­tion he didn’t get from the slow March 4 track. He won that day on the slow­est track of the Gulf­stream meet, then on April on the fastest. “But any­time you have a 3-year-old break 1:48 April 1, it’s pretty spe­cial,” Pletcher said, in­vok­ing the name Aly­dar. “We were pretty high on him from the very be­gin­ning, but he kept show­ing us over and over again, ev­ery breeze this win­ter, ev­ery race that he ran, he was spe­cial ev­ery time.”

Said Ve­lazquez: “Noth­ing against all the others, but this was the best horse.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IMAGES

John Ve­lazquez cel­e­brates aboard Al­ways Dream­ing, who won by 23/4 lengths and was the fifth straight fa­vorite to cap­ture the Derby.

GRE­GORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES

Jockey John Ve­lazquez guides Al­ways Dream­ing, sent off at 9-2 odds, across the fin­ish line to win the Ken­tucky Derby. The colt ran 11/4 miles in 2:03.59 and won by 23/4 lengths.

GARRY JONES/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ve­lazquez cel­e­brates Satur­day’s vic­tory — his sec­ond in the Derby and first since 2011, when he won aboard An­i­mal King­dom.

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