By Susan Johnson
Sometimes it takes a while, but dreams do come true. One happened Saturday, May 7, in Louisville, Kentucky. For trainer Todd Pletcher, who had won only once out of 45 tries, his second victory at the 143rd Kentucky Derby was especially sweet. Jockey John Velzquez also savored his second Derby win.
Always Dreaming came through for them in a big way, beating 33-1 longshot Lookin At Lee by 2-3/4 lengths. Another surprise was 40-1 Battle of Midway, who came in third. Owners of Always Dreaming are Brooklyn Boyz Stables and Teresa Viola, whose husband owns the NHL Florida Panthers.
So many things could have gone wrong. First, there was the unrelenting rain, starting Friday and continuing into Saturday. The Churchill Downs track was pretty well soaked and rates sloppy. With 20 horses competing, any number of circumstances could throw roadblocks in the way of the contenders.
Advance preparation had as much to do with Always Dreaming’s victory as the colt’s natural speed. He caused Pletcher and exercise rider Adele Bellinger some anxious concern when, after training well all winter, he suddenly turned rank in his workouts at Churchill Downs. Pletcher made two changes: a new exercise rider, Neil Bush, and the use of “draw” reins, giving the rider better control. It worked, as Always Dreaming was calm yet eager to run going into the Derby. Velazquez also deserves credit for his good judgment. As they came out of the gate, he shook the reins, signaling Always Dreaming to move ahead out of the traffic on the muddy track.
Timing was just right for the Florida Derby winner who took the Gulfstream race by five lengths, registering the fastest clocking since Alydar in 1978. He had never even run in a stakes race until April, but in Florida he easily picked up 100 points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Classic Empire, who already had 100 points before winning the Arkansas Derby, and was the 2-year-old champion and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, is a better horse than it appeared in the Derby. He only raced twice as a 3-year-old due to injuries but showed promise.
Some bad luck was enough to throw him out of Triple Crown contention, but he’s still one to watch. Recovering after treatment for a recent foot abscess and apparently fit to run, he was placed first in the second starting gate and came out into the gap between gates. Then he got bumped or squeezed by McCraken, upsetting his rhythm. He never quite got back in sync, though he battled back gamely to come in fourth. He may find better conditions – and less crowding – at the Preakness. Keep your eyes on him in two weeks.
Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner who went off at 5-1, made a good effort but was never really in contention and finally finished 10th.
Thunder Snow, a United Arab Emirates Derby winner, may have been shipped around too much between continents and could have been affected by travel fatigue. Barely out of the gate, he had a meltdown, started bucking, and never really got started, much less finishing.
As though trying to make his sire proud, Always Dreaming succeeded where his father Bodemeister failed. After building up a five-length lead in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister was passed at the wire by I’ll Have Another. But his son, Always Dreaming, came through in a big finish, running the 1-1/4 miles easily. It was the fifth straight year that a Derby favorite has won.
Always Dreaming was one of three horses that Pletcher had entered in this Derby. The other two were Tapwrit and Patch, the horse who had lost his left eye as a 2-year-old.
Sent off at 9-2, Always Dreaming paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. Lookin At Lee paid $26.60 and $18.20, while Battle of Midway brought $20.80 to show.
Next race: the Preakness at Baltimore Maryland May 20.