LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In a weekend that provided enough rain to supply Niagara Falls, the sun finally filtered through the Twin Spires at historic Churchill Downs to shine on Always Dreaming.
The 3-year-old son of Bodemeister splashed home to a 2 3/4-length victory to don the roses bestowed upon the winner of America’s most famous race for the 143rd time.
Amidst the mint juleps, fancy hats and losing tickets strewn across the spacious race grounds, one winner emerged in front of 158,070 after weeks of speculation.
It seems crazy that it takes but two minutes to decide who will win a race that has been discussed and debated ad nauseam for weeks leading up to the race. But this is the Derby, the event on everyone’s bucket list.
Once again, the greatest two minutes in sports delivered.
Late Saturday afternoon, the 9-2 post time favorite Always Dreaming ($11.40) dismissed the track conditions and crossed the line first under a sky that finally looked like a Monet instead of your kindergartener’s art project.
He avenged his father’s loss in the 2012 Derby when I’ll Have Another closed late to defeat Bodemeister in the final furlong.
Always Dreaming provided trainer Todd Pletcher with his second career Derby win in 48 attempts. He last trained the Derby winner in 2010 with Super Saver, who ironically also won on an off track for Pletcher’s first Derby win. On that day in 2010, the sun also came out just before the Derby.
He was a bundle of energy all week long, to the point where Pletcher put draw reins on him during training. He was no doubt the alpha horse when he took over at the top of the stretch putting away every challenger with ease.
“We felt the draw reins would control him better, bring his head down, give the rider better control,” said Pletcher. “The main thing is I wanted to control the pace of his gallops. He was essentially, wanting to run the race in the morning, and we couldn't do that,” said Pletcher.
“I think it was a big part of why he was successful today. We're thankful we did it. Glad it paid off,” said Pletcher.
The win also provided the longtime Saratoga combination of Pletcher-Velazquez their first Derby win together. Velazquez won his only other Derby aboard Animal Kingdom for trainer Graham Motion in 2011.
“This is so special to win the race with Johnny,” said Pletcher. “We’ve been together for all these years and this is sweet,” said Pletcher.
Velazquez echoed Pletcher’s sentiments about their long journey together. “Winning this one is definitely a big one,” said Velazquez. “I really think being behind me for 24 years together, something like that, is a long time for him to still trust in me and give me the opportunity, it's not very often it happens in this business.”
Bob Baffert, winning trainer of the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, and 3-time winner of the Derby was the trainer of Always Dreaming’s sire, Bodemeister. He called the win on Friday in his post race press conference when asked to pick the Derby winner, “You know, you've got the winner of the Florida Derby. I think Todd Pletcher's horse is really fast,” mentioning Bodemeister as his voice trailed off.
State of Honor, the longshot Ontario-bred, set a fast opening quarter of 22:70, with Always Dreaming tracking him and putting him away on the backstretch. Irish War Cry threatened on the far turn and to the top of the stretch, but the winner put him away handily.
The third-place finisher, Battle of Midway, challenged him through the stretch, but faded late as Lookin at Lee came up the rail to secure the placing. Battle of Midway jockey Flavien Prat just couldn’t get to the winner.
“I got a good trip,” said Prat. “He broke well and he put me right in the race. On the turn I asked him and he didn’t really respond, but then he surprised me and kept on after the winner,” said Prat.
Second-place finisher Lookin at Lee ran a spectacular race. Trainer Steve Asmussen exclaimed, “He’s the first horse in 20 years to run in the top three from the one hole.”
The $2 exacta pairing Always Dreaming and Lookin at Lee paid $336.20, and the $2 trifecta with Battle of Midway underneath paid a whopping $16,594.40.
Corey Lanerie shrugged off the dreaded rail with Lookin at Lee and stayed a path along the rail throughout to claim the second place check edging Battle of Midway in the final 200 yards. “It was a really good trip, the kind I dream of and pray for,” said Lanerie. “My horse was committed to it and he would have run through a hole in a needle,” said Lanerie.
There was a point that the hometown Churchill Downs jockey thought he could win the race. “I thought at the quarter pole, I hadn’t really asked him that much yet,” said Lanerie. “He was traveling and carrying me. I said to myself I’m about to win the Kentucky Derby,” he said.
We may be seeing this horse in New York in five weeks in the Belmont Stakes. Another quarter of a mile for the son of Lookin at Lucky shouldn’t be an issue. “They’ll be another chance,” said Lanerie when posed with that possible option.
It marked the sixth year in a row that a winner of one of the 100-point prep races emerged to win the Derby. It was also the third Florida Derby winner to do so in that time span, following the efforts by Orb (2013) and Nyquist (2016) last year.
Now it’s on to Pimlico and the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, where the distance is a sixteen-of-a-mile shorter than the Derby and a course that Always Dreaming should relish.
The Preakness has been run over off tracks the last two years, with wins by American Pharoah and Exaggerator last year. Ironically, Pletcher hasn’t raced a horse in the Preakness in the past two years, typically skipping Baltimore for his hometown Belmont Stakes.
This time he’ll be there.
Dreaming of bigger things to come.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.