Todd Pletcher isn’t one to lay his cards out on the table, but eight days before the Kentucky Derby, the seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer was, by his low-key standards, practically beaming over Always Dreaming’s final work. Powerful, he called it. Just what we wanted, he gushed.
Problem was, his horse was almost too good. From the time the winner of the Florida Derby arrived at Churchill Downs 12 days before the race, he was full of energy and ready to run. Right here. Right now.
“He was, essentially, wanting to run the race in the morning, and we couldn't do that,” said Pletcher on Saturday, adding, “The one thing we wanted to do was have the horse peak today.”
Mission accomplished. In one of the more masterful training jobs in the race’s 143-year history, the 49-year-old trainer had his talented 3-year-old primed at exactly the right time for the right race. Always Dreaming roared to a 2 3/4-length victory to take the traditional garland or roses before an announced crowd of 158,070.
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The $4.70-1 favorite — the fifth straight betting favorite to win the race — Always Dreaming paid $11.40 to win, $7.20 to place and $5.80 to show. Coming out of the dreaded No. 1 post position, long-shot Lookin At Lee ran a strong second for trainer Steve Asmussen and paid $26.60 and 15.20. Battle of Midway, running his first race outside of Santa Anita in California, paid $20.80 to finish third for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
The presumed favorite, reigning juvenile champion, Classic Empire, slipped to 7-1 in the betting odds over worries about how the quirky colt would handle the Derby’s circus atmosphere. Trained by Mark Casse, the Arkansas Derby winner finished fourth, a length behind Battle of Midway.
“We got wiped out at the start,” said Casse, whose horse broke from the No. 14 post position.
Wood Memorial winner Irish Cry, who was actually second in the wagering at $4.80-to-1, hung with the leaders early for trainer Graham Motion, then faded to 10th in the full field of 20 horses.
Forwardly placed from the start, Always Dreaming executed a dream scenario, stalking early leader State of Honor, who set a quick but not ridiculous pace, going :46.53 for the half-mile. When the leader faded, Always Dreaming assumed the lead by a head at the 3/4 pole and widened it out from there.
“He got into a good rhythm right away,” said jockey John Velazquez, who won his second Kentucky Derby, matching his ride on Animal Kingdom in 2011. But it was his first with Pletcher after a long and successful relationship between the New York-based rider and trainer. “It’s special to win one with Todd.”
It also was the second Derby victory for Pletcher, who won in 2010 with Super Saver. Yet Pletcher’s frustrations in the sport’s most high-profile race were well-documented. With three horses entered Saturday — Tapwrit ran sixth; Patch finished 14th — Pletcher tied his old boss D. Wayne Lukas for most career Derby entries with 48. Before Saturday, he was 1-for-45.
“I think for the first 25 starters I had to defend my record,” Pletcher said. “I felt like this week, people were defending it for me for some reason.”
Maybe that was because observers felt he had the horse to get that elusive second win. When Pletcher received the horse from the Brooklyn Boyz Stables, led by Vincent Viola and Anthony Bonomo, it didn’t take the trainer long to know he had a special talent. The problem was coming up with a plan to get the colt to peak at just the right time.
It took two tries as a 2-year-old and one as a 3-year-old before the son of Bodemeister registered his first career win, an 11 1/2-length romp on Jan. 25 at Tampa Bay Downs. That hurdle cleared, Pletcher mapped out a cautious plan that had Always Dreaming skip the Fountain of Youth, a traditional prep for the Florida Derby, in favor of an allowance race on the same day at Gulfstream Park. Always Dreaming won that by 4 lengths.
The Grade 1 Florida Derby, on April 1 at Gulfstream, was Always Dreaming’s first try in stakes company, and the colt blew away the opposition by 5 lengths. It was the time of the race, 1:47.47, that got Pletcher’s attention.
“Any time you have a 3-year-old go under 1:48 in a mile-and-an-eighth race, that’s pretty special,” he said.
By the time Always Dreaming got to Louisville on April 23, he was full of energy. And after the dazzling work the following Friday, Pletcher was concerned the colt still wanted to go. He switched to Nick Bush as exercise rider and fitted the horse with draw reins to give the jockey more control and keep the colt’s head from going too far up. The first day, Always Dreaming fought the new equipment. The second day, he settled into the change.
“I’m not sure we would have been able to do it without it,” said Pletcher.
The morning and early afternoon rain gave way to sunshine by Derby post time, but the track was still listed as sloppy, something Always Dreaming had never experienced before.
“We worried about how he would handle it,” said Velazquez. “But he ran like he loved it.”
Will he love the track at Pimlico in Baltimore in two weeks for the Preakness, a race Pletcher has been known to skip in order to keep his horses fresh for the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes three weeks later in New York?
“If he’s doing well, we’re going to go to Baltimore,” said Pletcher. “And I don’t think I’ll have to twist any arms.”
Chances are, Always Dreaming hasn’t peaked yet.
Remaining Triple Crown races
May 20: Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
June 10: Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.