05/06/2017 9:13PM

Always Dreaming becomes fifth straight favorite to win Kentucky Derby

Barbara D. Livingston
Always Dreaming, with John Velazquez aboard, wins the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For all the abuse trainer Todd Pletcher has seen come his way for his record in the Kentucky Derby, winning with one of his first 45 starters, his win on Saturday with Always Dreaming in the 143rd Derby might have been his finest hour here at Churchill Downs.

It takes confidence in one’s own ability to make a change on the fly in the crucial days leading up to the biggest race in the country, but that’s what Pletcher did earlier in the week. Concerned with the aggressiveness that Always Dreaming was showing in the mornings following his final workout eight days out from the race, Pletcher decided to change equipment and exercise riders, hoping to keep a horse obviously primed from being overcooked.

“We felt he was sitting on go,” Pletcher said. “We were trying to deliver him at 6:45 on Saturday instead of 6:45 on Thursday morning.”

On Saturday afternoon, in front of an announced crowd of 158,070, the work in the morning paid off handsomely. Always Dreaming thoroughly dominated his rivals and rolled to an emphatic victory to give Pletcher his second Derby win in the past eight years and his second in the 17 times he has participated in the race. Always Dreaming ($11.40) was the first favorite he ever sent out in the Derby.

“This is our 17th Derby, and we have two wins, two seconds, and three thirds, so it looks a little better now,” Pletcher said.

“The first win was extra special,” he said of his victory with Super Saver in 2010, “but I felt like we needed a second one.”

Not, Pletcher said, for validation. “I don’t think I’m any better trainer right now than I was an hour ago,” he said at a post-race press conference. “I felt like another one would solidify it.”

:: 2017 Kentucky Derby race chart

Pletcher won this Derby in concert with jockey Johnny Velazquez, who has been joined at the hip with Pletcher for two decades.

“I felt like Johnny and I needed one together,” Pletcher said. “We’ve had a great relationship for a long time now, a lot of wins together, but not this before.”

Pletcher also had some newer partners in this venture, including Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo, childhood pals from Brooklyn who are part of the ownership group with Always Dreaming, along with West Point Thoroughbreds.

“We’ve won a lot of Kentucky Derbies, but never in reality,” Bonomo said. “I guess dreams do come true.”

Viola is the owner of the Florida Panthers of the National Hockey League. On Saturday morning, the Stanley Cup – used on NBC’s telecast of the Derby – made a visit to Pletcher’s barn. That’s the second straight year the Cup has been in the barn of the Derby winner on Derby morning, following Nyquist last year.

Always Dreaming, prominent from the start, finished 2 3/4 lengths in front of late-running Lookin At Lee, who rallied from well back for second. Battle of Midway was another five lengths behind in third. Classic Empire, who endured a rough early going, rallied for fourth, then came Practical Joke, Tapwrit, Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley, Irish War Cry, Hence, Untrapped, Girvin, Patch, J Boys Echo, Sonneteer, Fast and Accurate, Irap, and State of Honor, with Thunder Snow officially last.

Thunder Snow started buck jumping soon after leaving the gate, nearly dislodged jockey Christophe Soumillon in the opening strides, and refused to get involved in the race. He was taken off the track by an outrider and examined by veterinarians in the paddock right after the race, but nothing amiss was found.

“He walked back to the barn under his own power,” said Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Always Dreaming had a clean trip. Starting from post 5, he left alertly and was just inside of State of Honor through the lane the first time and around the first turn. Upon entering the backstretch, Velazquez was able to slide Always Dreaming off the rail and take up a stalking position just outside of State of Honor.

The early fractions were quick – 22.70 seconds for the opening quarter and 46.53 for a half – and then Always Dreaming poked his head in front with a half-mile to go, after six furlongs in 1:11.12. State of Honor faded quickly, and Irish War Cry – who had been in a seemingly ideal, stalking spot – started to struggle nearing the quarter pole.

Battle of Midway, also prominent early, was closest to Always Dreaming after one mile in 1:37.27, but after straightening away in the lane, Always Dreaming opened up on his rivals and put the race away. He completed 1 1/4 miles on a wet-fast track in 2:03.59.

Lookin At Lee, at 33-1, hugged the rail most of the way and was fortunate to get through inside midway on the far turn when several horses, most notably Fast and Accurate, backed up rapidly. But his closing charge never threatened Always Dreaming.

Classic Empire was bothered badly leaving the gate in a chain reaction that began when Irish War Cry veered in sharply and collided with McCraken, who in turn slammed into Classic Empire. As a result, Classic Empire was shuffled back to 13th coming under the wire the first time. He did well to rally for fourth.

McCraken, after being knocked about early, wound up in midpack down the backstretch while outside horses, advanced a bit early on the far turn into a striking position, but then lost his punch.

Pletcher brought over three horses, with Always Dreaming being joined by Tapwrit and Patch. But Always Dreaming was clearly the best regarded of the trio. Since joining Pletcher’s barn last fall after making his first two starts for Dominick Schettino, Always Dreaming – a son of 2012 Derby runner-up Bodemeister – had won all three of his starts, all around two turns, including the Florida Derby.

After arriving here nearly two weeks ago from Florida and immediately becoming aggressive – “He was ready to run upon arrival,” Pletcher said – Always Dreaming worked brilliantly on April 28 under Velazquez but in subsequent days was in danger of passing that fine line between being just right and too sharp.

Adele Bellinger had galloped him all winter and into the spring, but Pletcher decided early in the week to put Nick Bush aboard in the mornings and use draw reins, which help a rider keep a horse restrained.

“I felt like we were losing ground,” Pletcher said. “Adele’s a team player, but the horse was getting too strong for her at this stage. He wasn’t perfect the first day, but we were able to get him better under control, not go out there at a two-minute clip. He was aggressive but under control.”

Always Dreaming has now won four times in six starts. He earned $1,635,800 from a gross purse of $2,395,800, bringing his career earnings to just shy of $2.3 million.

He’ll try to keep his win streak – and Triple Crown hopes – alive in two weeks in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. But that was something for Pletcher to worry about on Sunday morning. He joked that he’d arrive at the barn “a little later than usual.” It was clear he was going to savor this win.

:: 2017 Preakness Advanced-Access Package

His Derby record can be viewed as two wins in 17 runnings, or two wins from 48 starters. But what he did this week is more nuanced than those cold, hard stats. He knew, though, what was most true about what had taken place.

“The most important thing is to bring the best horse to the Derby,” Pletcher said, “and that’s what we did this week.”