04/01/2017 7:59PM

Always Dreaming adds to Pletcher's Kentucky Derby arsenal by winning Florida Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Always Dreaming’s final time of 1:47.47 was the fastest in the Florida Derby since Alydar completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.00 in 1978.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Trainer Todd Pletcher’s strong hand on the road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby suddenly got a lot stronger late Saturday afternoon at Gulfstream Park after Always Dreaming powered to a convincing five-length victory over State of Honor in the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby. Gunnevera, the even-money favorite in a field of 10 3-year-olds coming off his convincing win in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth here four weeks earlier, finished third after dropping well back during the early stages of the race.

Always Dreaming’s final time of 1:47.47 was the fastest in the Florida Derby since Alydar completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.00 in 1978.  The victory was the fourth in the Florida Derby for both Pletcher and John Velazquez, the most for either a trainer or jockey in the storied history of the event. 

Pletcher entered the day with three horses - Tapwrit, Malagacy, and Battalion Runner - amongst the top 12 on Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch list. He exited with two more probable Kentucky Derby starters, both Always Dreaming and Patch, who finished second just 30 minutes earlier in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.  Pletcher had also entered Battalion Runner in the Florida Derby as an insurance policy should Always Dreaming not be able to start but scratched him, as expected, on Saturday morning to run next in either the Wood or Arkansas Derby.  

Always Dreaming, a son of Bodemeister, has been a work in progress since joining Pletcher’s stable for his 3-year-old campaign. Winless in two starts at 2, Always Dreaming went to Tampa Bay Downs to win his maiden by 11 1/2 lengths on Jan. 25 after which Pletcher opted to bypass the Fountain of Youth to send out Always Dreaming to beat a weak entry-level allowance field going nine furlongs here on March 4. And Pletcher was supremely confident his relatively inexperienced colt would turn in a big effort in his stakes debut following a pair of extremely impressive works at Palm Beach Downs subsequent to that outing.

Always Dreaming steadied briefly into the clubhouse turn and was a bit keen early while put in perfect striking position by  Velazquez to stalk the pace of Three Rules, who set fractions of 23.28 seconds, 47.08, and 1:10.75 for the opening six furlongs. Always Dreaming engaged the leader turning into the stretch, edged clear nearing the furlong marker, and then steadily increased his advantage under strong handling to the wire before galloping out with excellent energy into the clubhouse turn.

State of Honor, racing with blinkers off following his second- and third-place finishes in the Sam F. Davis and Tampa Bay Derby, was taken back off Three Rules and got very rank under jockey Julien Leparoux around the clubhouse turn and entering the backstretch. He  settled into a bit better rhythm while still under a hold for the next half-mile, found room inside the tiring Three Rules when asked for his run near midstretch and proved second-best while never threatening the winner.

Gunnevera broke slowest after ducking out a bit leaving the gate and was immediately angled over to the rail by jockey Javier Castellano to race at the rear of the 10-horse field. Gunnevera lagged a dozen lengths behind the leader for more than six furlongs, commenced a rally while wide around the second bend, making up some ground down the center of the course without ever menacing the top two.

Impressive Edge was forwardly placed outside horses into the stretch but failed to respond to heavy urging through the final quarter, finishing a tiring fourth in his two-turn debut. He was followed, in order, by Three Rules, Talk Logistics, Coleman Rocky, Unbridled Holiday, Charlie the Greek, and Quinientos.

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Always Dreaming is owned in partnership by St. Elias, Teresa Viola Racing Stables, Brooklyn Boyz Stables, West Point Thoroughbreds, and Siena Farm. A $350,000 yearling purchase at Keeneland September 2015, he went off the second choice in the wagering and paid $7.40.

“We talked a lot about the next step after he broke his maiden at Tampa and thought the correct move was to try the allowance race on Fountain of Youth Day, even though we felt the Fountain of Youth was a race he fit in,” said Pletcher. “We felt he needed a little more foundation, a little more education. Unfortunately the way that race unfolded, he found himself on the lead, Johnny just waited and asked him to finish up the last eighth of a mile and to be honest, we didn’t learn a whole lot that day.”

Pletcher said Always Dreaming came out of that race exceptionally well, trained as well as any horse he had at Palm Beach Downs this winter, and after his performance in the Florida Derby still believes his horse has ample room for improvement.

“I  loved the way he finished the race, galloped out and came back to the winner’s circle pretty composed and not blowing too hard,” said Pletcher. “So I do think there is room for improvement.”

Trainer Antonio Sano took Gunnevera’s setback in stride and said his horse will definitely move forward to the Kentucky Derby.

“Javier [Castellano] told me the post position was a little problem, that the horse wasn’t comfortable from the beginning,” said Sano. “I’m happy. He finished strong. This is an important race to win, but it was a good race to set him up for the next one.”

Trainer Mark Casse was also pleased with State of Honor’s performance.

“He tries hard, he ran good, and I think he learned something today which should help him down the road,” said Casse.

When asked about the Kentucky Derby, Casse said “I’ll talk to the owners. We’ll see."

- additional reporting by David Grening