05/06/2017 9:24PM

Velazquez, Pletcher proud to achieve elusive goal together

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Justin N. Lane
John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher had gone 0 for 11 together in the Kentucky Derby until Always Dreaming's win on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They had won more than 1,600 races together -- including a Belmont Stakes with a filly -- and for nearly two decades have been the dominant jockey-and-trainer combination in North American racing.

When it came to the Kentucky Derby, however, jockey John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher had come up goose eggs, going winless in 11 prior years together dating to 2000, the first year Pletcher ran a horse in the race.

While both men had won the Kentucky Derby separately, they felt their careers wouldn’t be complete unless they could win one together.

On Saturday, they did just that as Velazquez guided the Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming to a dominant 2 3/4-length victory in the 143rd Kentucky Derby in the slop at Churchill Downs. For Velazquez, it was his second Derby win in 19 mounts. His previous Derby success came in 2011 on Animal Kingdom, a mount he picked up for Graham Motion when Uncle Mo --  the morning-line favorite trained by Pletcher -- had to scratch after being diagnosed with an internal issue the week of the race.

“All the success we had in the past and not winning the Kentucky Derby, something was missing, so finally I got it done,” Velazquez said shortly after leaving the raucous winner’s circle.

Pletcher won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, ridden by Calvin Borel. That year, Velazquez rode the filly Devil May Care, also trained by Pletcher, to a 10th-place finish in the race.

According to Daily Racing Form records, it was the 1,620th win for the Pletcher-Velazquez team. It was the 262nd in a graded stakes race, perhaps the biggest prior to Saturday being the 2007 Belmont Stakes with the filly Rags to Riches.

“I felt like Johnny and I needed one together,” Pletcher said of the Derby. “We had a great relationship for a long time now, and we have won a lot of races together. This one we hadn’t, and this is the one we wanted to get.”

Leona Velazquez, Johnny’s wife, said her husband talked about wanting to win the race for Pletcher, whom he first met in the early 1990s, when Pletcher was an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

“Johnny and him always had a good relationship and a rapport, and when he went out on his own, they bonded and clicked, so to see the two of them win it together, it meant so much,” she said. “It’s extremely special, it really is.”

Angel Cordero Jr., the Hall of Fame jockey who won the Kentucky Derby three times, got emotional when talking about Velazquez winning the Derby for Pletcher.

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“I didn’t want him to retire without him doing it for him,” Cordero said. “To me, it means a lot. I helped [Velazquez] get to the top; I’ve been with him for 27 years. To me, it’s the greatest moment for me right now.”

The best finish the Pletcher/Velazquez team previously had in the Kentucky Derby came in 2001, when Invisible Ink finished second to Monarchos. Since then, the best finish the two had had together was a sixth in 2007 with Circular Quay.

Velazquez said he was extremely confident in Always Dreaming after he worked the colt a sharp five furlongs here on April 28. He said he told Pletcher this was the best horse they ever brought to this race.

“I told Todd we have not had a horse work like this a week before the Derby,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez, who was in New York most of Derby week, was cognizant of the aggressive nature in which Always Dreaming was training during the week. Velazquez had ridden the horse to his three previous victories this year, including the Florida Derby, and didn’t consider him to be a problem. He wasn’t overly concerned considering the changes Pletcher had made during the week to get the colt to relax better.

In the Derby, Velazquez said Pletcher wanted him to put Always Dreaming on the rail, but that spot was occupied by State of Honor for the first half-mile.

“I’m not going to chase him to stay on the rail,” Velazquez said. “Once he passed me, I went to the outside. When I passed him at the half-mile pole, I went right back to the rail.”

In 2013, Velazquez was seriously injured in a spill at the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. When he returned in early 2014, he said he likely would ride for only a few more years. Since his return, he has been relatively healthy. Retirement seems far away.

“If I stay healthy enough and I still get these opportunities, we’ll stay around for a little longer,” Velazquez said.