For a brief moment, as tears filled Todd Pletcher’s steel-blue eyes, the normally dispassionate trainer let the world see how it felt for him to cast aside the weight of so many Kentucky Derby disappointments.
Pletcher knows the narrative all too well. Despite winning a record seven Eclipse Awards for Top Trainer and ranking as the leading purse winner in history at age 49, he’s the guy who’s saddled almost 50 horses for the Derby and won just once.
Make that twice.
Because on Saturday, Always Dreaming, a horse who’d never even run in a stakes race before the start of April, swept over a rain-soaked track to win the 143rd Derby at Churchill Downs. He was the fifth consecutive favorite to take the $2-million race.
“The first 25 times, I felt like I had to defend my record,” Pletcher said when asked about his Derby history. “But this week, it felt like others were defending it for me for some reason. To me, I felt like I really needed that second one.”
He even grinned a little when asked if the silver goatee he’s sported lately is lucky. “I think I’m going to have a tough time shaving it now,” he said.
Jockey John Velazquez also won his second Derby aboard Always Dreaming. He took the colt out fast, passing early leader Battle Of Midway just before the 3/4-mile pole.
“I just waited for the competition to press me a little,” he said. “When I asked him, he stretched the lead. They were going to have to go really fast to catch him.”
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen thought 33-1 long shot Lookin At Lee was poised to give him his first Derby victory when jockey Corey Lanerie made a late move on Always Dreaming. But Asmussen tipped his hat to Pletcher’s horse, who would not allow the distance to close.
“When Corey cut the corner, I thought we were the winner,” he said. “We didn’t win because that horse ran well to the wire. No other reason.”
Always Dreaming simply never faded.
“He was impressive,” said trainer Graham Motion, whose Maryland-based Irish War Cry went off as the 5-1 second choice but faded to finish 10th. “He ran fast and he finished fast.”
Always Dreaming, owned by a group that includes Florida Panthers owner Vinnie Viola and his childhood friend Anthony Bonomo, had become a bettors’ favorite based on his stellar performance in the April 1 Florida Derby and his strong workouts in the wake of that victory. But he also faced doubts because he was overly eager during training at Churchill Downs.
Pletcher’s quest all week was to keep the horse calm.
“He was so ready that I worried when he galloped, if he built up a head of steam, he might just go,” he said. He changed exercise riders and used “draw” reins in hopes of keeping the horse in check. His tactics paid off as Always Dreaming seemed unaffected by the crowd of 158,070 at Churchill Downs.
He went off as a 9-2 favorite despite coming in with just four career races and finished the 11/4 miles in 2 minutes, 3.59 seconds.
He paid $11.40 on a $2 bet to win, $7.20 on a $2 bet to place and $5.80 on a $2 bet to show. Lookin At Lee returned $26.60 and $15.20. Third-place finisher Battle of Midway returned $20.80.
Always Dreaming’s owners, Viola and Bonomo, recalled growing up together in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., both with fathers who adored the racing game. Viola was the disciplined one who’d go on to West Point, Bonomo the big dreamer.
“Someone asked me if this is the greatest feeling I’ve ever had,” Viola said. “The answer is yes, aside from the births of my children and meeting my wife.”
Added Bonomo; “I think we just knew, when we got together, something special was going to happen.”
The 2017 Derby could not hold on to a favorite.
Classic Empire was the original choice coming off a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he delivered a clunker in his first race of the year and then missed five weeks of training because he was injured, refused to train or both. Then Irish War Cry staggered to an inexplicable seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Next up was Bob Baffert-trained Mastery, who won the San Felipe Stakes in brilliant fashion, then fractured his leg before he could even make it off the track. After that, the booby prize fell to McCraken, who couldn’t get past 31-1 shot Irap in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Finally, the whole narrative swung back to the beginning, with Classic Empire — his mental and physical woes seemingly behind him — starting as the morning-line favorite. Even then, bettors rejected the choice, pushing Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry above him in the pre-race odds.
Baffert, who left town after he won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, dubbed it the “I don’t know Derby.”
The rain, which began falling Thursday and continued most of the time through early Saturday afternoon, added another element of uncertainty. Though the race started under sunny skies, the track surface did not have time to recover and was rated wet-fast.
Despite the muck, Irish War Cry’s effort to bring Derby glory back to Maryland looked good with ½ mile to go.
“[Jockey] Rajiv [Maragh] said he was cruising at the top of the stretch. He was looking around and I felt pretty confident,” Motion said. “He felt like he had a lot of horse. But then he went from having a lot of horse to not having enough horse within a few strides. Could it be the mile and a quarter? Maybe. I think it’s too early to tell. He just didn’t finish.”
When asked if he would run Irish War Cry in the home-state Preakness, Motion said, “I have to think about it. I’m not 100-percent sure I will.”
He said he’d like to have the colt fresh for the July 30 Haskell Invitational, a New Jersey race named after owner Isabelle de Tomaso’s father.
Pletcher, meanwhile, has often skipped the Preakness over the years with an eye on running fresh horses in the Belmont Stakes. But after Always Dreaming galloped out energetically at the end of the Derby, Pletcher said Baltimore is likely his next destination.
“I think if he’s doing well, we’re going to Baltimore,” the newest two-time Derby winner said. “I don’t think I’m going to have to twist anybody’s arm.”