In the week leading up to the 143rd Kentucky Derby, a big part of the churning pre-race discussion was trainer Todd Pletcher and his lackluster Derby record:
One win out of 45 starters.
Across the years, the Derby gods have done a pretty fair job of tormenting John Velazquez, Pletcher’s longtime, first-call rider, too.
Velazquez could have ridden Orb in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. He chose instead to ride Verrazano for Pletcher, his longtime patron.
Orb won the race.
In 2009 (Quality Road), 2010 (Eskendereya) and 2011 (Uncle Mo), Velazquez was slated to ride likely Derby favorites.
All three were scratched before making the starting gates.
Instead of Velazquez — one of the best Thoroughbred jockeys of this generation — being a multi-time Derby winner, he came to Churchill Downs on Saturday with only one prior win in the Run for the Roses on his résumé.
In 2011, the horse racing fates gave one back to Velazquez. After Uncle Mo scratched, trainer Graham Motion tabbed Velazquez to replace an injured Robby Albarado on Animal Kingdom.
Velazquez rode Animal Kingdom into the Derby winner’s circle.
Yet for a Hall of Fame jockey with more than 5,700 wins and in excess of $362 million in career purse earnings, “only” one Kentucky Derby win felt like underachievement.
Besides, Pletcher and Velazquez — arguably the premier trainer/jockey pairing in North American Thoroughbred racing in the 21st century — had not won the Derby together.
“That’s what was missing,” Velazquez said. “All the big races we’ve won together, I wanted to win this race with Todd.”
Thanks to a horse with the evocative name Always Dreaming, Velazquez and Pletcher have now filled the void in their remarkable shared racing history.
With Velazquez making the winning move going into the first turn, Always Dreaming scored a decisive Derby win, beating late-closing long shot Lookin At Lee by 2 3/4 lengths in a time of 2:03.59 over a sloppy track.
The 158,070 Churchill Downs fans who braved the intermittent rain and chilly temperatures saw Velazquez, a 45-year-old native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, expertly navigate the 20-horse cavalry charge that is the start of a Kentucky Derby.
From the No. 5 post, Velazquez got Always Dreaming to the first turn forwardly placed behind only pacesetting, 54-1 shot State of Honor.
“Out of the gate, we didn’t have any trouble,” Velazquez said. “The first step, I wasn’t too happy with. The second step, I had to ask him to break. And he got in a good rhythm right away.”
Velazquez was content to cruise down the backstretch in second place. As State of Honor backed up and Battle of Midway and Irish War Cry pressed forward near the final turn, Velazquez asked his horse to run.
Always Dreaming was blazingly happy to do so.
When the 143rd Derby turned for home, Always Dreaming was sitting on the lead.
His jockey was internalizing smiles.
“I was very happy,” Velazquez said. “I felt the way he was running, I said, ‘They will have to run really fast to get him.’”
When “they” didn’t, at last, the duo of Velazquez and Pletcher — who have combined to win dozens of stakes races across the years — got to celebrate victory together in the most important American horse race of all.
Said Pletcher: “I felt like Johnny and I needed one together. We have 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 win together.”
And Velazquez: “Winning the Derby with Todd, it’s very special.”
The jockey whose Kentucky Derby luck has so often been rotten has now persevered to be a two-time winner.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Velazquez said. “Get an opportunity to ride a horse like this, you’ve got to enjoy it.”