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-year-old 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 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 extra-special 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.”
“Nothing against all the others,” Velazquez said, “but this was the best horse.”