Living the Derby dream

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Only a few days remained in the 2016 Saratoga Race Course meeting as word filtered its way through the barn area that a sizable group of horses was being transferred from one trainer to another. Such a situation is not that uncommon these days in racing – with owners watching win percentages and seeming to gravitate only to a handful of trainers with large racing operations.

The horses were those owned by Anthony and Maryellen Bonomo, who race in the names Brooklyn Boyz Stables and MeB Racing Stables, respectively. They’d employed Dominick Schettino for many years but made the call to move their horses to Todd Pletcher, whose record speaks for itself and a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he becomes eligible.

One of the horses in the group was a colt from the first crop of Bodemeister who cost $350,000 as a yearling and given a name fitting the outlook of so many invested in the topsy-turvy world of Thoroughbred racing. Always Dreaming, the winner of Saturday’s 143rd edition of the Kentucky Derby in the near quagmire of Churchill Downs, had run two promising but non-winning races at the time the horses arrived in Pletcher’s care.

Always Dreaming showed himself as a colt with upside, and a second in a fast maiden race on the Alabama Stakes undercard provided evidence that good things were yet to come for the dark bay son of the 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up.

“We picked the horse up right at the beginning of September and decided, after we all talked about it, that a little freshening would be good for him,” Pletcher said after collecting his second Derby win to go with Super Saver’s score in 2010. “So Jim Crupi, who had prepared the colt as a yearling, we sent him back to him. He gave him some time off. It paid off. When he sent him back to us, he was in great form, looked fantastic. We could see right away, as soon as we were breezing him, that he had extra special talent.”

Always Dreaming showed that talent in the Derby, attending a fairly quick pace through the opening half-mile under John Velazquez, taking the lead with about a half-mile to run, opening up turning for home and in midstretch and holding off Lookin At Lee’s late run to win by 2 3/4 lengths.

Sent off as the slight favorite over Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry in front of 158,070 fans at Churchill and millions more watching the NBC broadcast on television, Always Dreaming ran his record to 4-for-4 with Pletcher and padded his bankroll to $2,284,700 with the victory. 

Family affair

“Growing up as kids, we’ve won a lot of Kentucky Derbies, but never in reality,” Bonomo said. “You know, I think we just knew, when we got together, something special was going to happen. Johnny and Todd have been great. The horse has been super. And it’s been a family affair. Look at that over there.”

Bonomo pointed to a large gathering sitting on the side of the post-race press conference room as he spoke and the ownership group is certainly a large family of sorts. Always Dreaming made his first two starts for Brooklyn Boyz and MeB Racing, then took on partners in Vinny and Teresa Viola’s St. Elias Stable Viola Racing Stables before he blasted a field of maidens in late January at Tampa Bay Downs.

Always Dreaming added another victory in allowance company at Gulfstream Park on Fountain of Youth Day in early March and the ownership group grew again with West Point Thoroughbreds and Siena Farms investing in a minority interest.

Always Dreaming raced for the six groups when he made his stakes debut in the Grade 1 Florida Derby April 1 at Gulfstream. Facing 6-5 favorite and Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera and Tampa Bay Derby runner-up State Of Honor – two colts he’d again face in the Kentucky Derby – Always Dreaming romped by 5 lengths under Velazquez to earn a trip to Louisville.

“The biggest concern, honestly, after the allowance race … was that he won so easily and the fractions were so slow, we were a little bit concerned that maybe he didn’t get enough out of it,” Pletcher said. “When Johnny and I were talking about race strategy prior to that race, we were hoping that maybe we could have him sit behind a couple horses and educate him and move forward. As it worked out, first of all, it was a very slow track that day. And so the fractions are probably a little bit deceptive. He basically won so easily that Johnny asked him to finish up the last eighth of a mile and gallop out. But it was more or less an afternoon workout.

“So it seemed to do fine for him once we got to the Florida Derby. And he showed us that he could handle multiple different types of tracks. The day he won the allowance race at Gulfstream, I would have considered the slowest track Gulfstream had this meet. And I would say the Florida Derby Day was arguably the fastest.”

Heavy rains Thursday and Friday and intermittent showers Saturday – including a good soaker about two hours before the Derby – left Churchill’s main track as saturated as the mint julep-toting fans on the grounds for the opening jewel of the Triple Crown. The track was officially labeled wet fast, making it just the fifth Derby run on anything but a fast surface since 2004.

Always Dreaming handled the off going without any issue, settling into stride past the stands the first time, leading for a bit before State Of Honor and Jose Lezcano inched ahead by a half length past the finish post and through a quick opening quarter in :22.70. Battle Of Midway, Irish War Cry, Fast And Accurate, Blue Grass winner Irap and Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley were all fairly close as the field made its way around the first turn.

The field was extremely strung out after a half in :46.53 and remained that way while Always Dreaming stuck his head in front between the five-eighths and half-mile poles. Past 6 furlongs in 1:11.12 and still looking comfortable on the front end, Always Dreaming braced for the challenge of Irish War Cry with Battle Of Midway racing between those two as McCraken and Classic Empire, involved in a bumping incident at the start, revved up while running wide approaching the quarter pole.

None could match Always Dreaming in the lane, Velazquez throwing a couple crosses and giving him several cracks of the whip right-handed between the three-sixteenths and eighth pole. After a few more reminders right handed, Velazquez looked under his right arm at the sixteenth pole then again 30 yards from home, only seeing a non-threatening Lookin At Lee with a big gap to the rest. Battle Of Midway held on for third, 5 lengths behind the runner-up while Classic Empire was a length back in fourth and three-quarters of a length clear of Practical Joke in fifth.

Velazquez celebrated more enthusiastically than usual, while Pletcher pumped his fist and high-fived bloodstock agent Steve Young, who picked out Always Dreaming at the 2015 Keeneland September sale, walking through the paddock and into the tunnel leading to the racetrack.

“Very special,” said Velazquez, who has teamed with Pletcher to win nearly 2,000 races but not the Derby. “Todd mentioned earlier that we had won important races. Winning this one is definitely a big one. And I really think being behind me for 24 years together, something like that, a long time for him to still trust in me and give me the opportunity, it’s not very often it happens in this business.”

Familiar theme

The victory was obviously sweet for Pletcher as well, after the seven-time Eclipse Award winner endured the predictable and not-so-predictable during Derby Week.

The predictable came in the form of mentions – whether in articles, TV or radio sound bytes or social media “hot takes” – about Pletcher’s record in the Kentucky Derby. He’d saddled one winner from 45 starters in the Derby before this year, along with two seconds and three thirds.

Pletcher didn’t shy from the discussion, saying his Derby record spoke for itself. He pointed out that he’d participated in 17 editions – including a run of 14 straight including this year – and hinted that he probably ran some horses without much chance at the behest of ambitious owners. None of Pletcher’s Derby starters went to the post as betting favorites, until Always Dreaming started against his 19 rivals as the 9-2 choice.

Pletcher annually gets some of the most well-bred and talented racing prospects from some of racing’s most successful owners, giving him a chance to compete in and win races like the Derby on an annual basis. Criticism of Pletcher’s Derby record doesn’t seem much different from those in college basketball questioning Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari’s record of winning NCAA titles with the Wildcats – he’s won just one but has made four trips to the Final Four and six to the Elite Eight – and is one of only a few, like Pletcher, with a chance to win it all every year.

Still Pletcher felt he needed a second Derby win, especially so with Velazquez considering all their success together. And a second Derby win would put him in even more elite company as only 18 trainers own two or more victories in America’s most important race.

“Our Derby record has been talked about a lot. And like we talked about, I felt like about the first 25 starters I had to defend my Derby record. I felt like this week people were defending it for me for some reason,” Pletcher said. “When you look at it now, we have been here – this was our 17th Derby. To be fortunate enough to have two wins and two seconds and three thirds, it looked a little better. To me, it felt like I really needed that second one, you know? One more. And the first one was extra special.

“I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win. But I felt like we needed another one as a team to put it together. And I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well. 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 I’m glad we could do it.”

The unpredictable came after Always Dreaming arrived at Churchill from Pletcher’s winter base at Palm Beach Downs in South Florida a little less than two weeks before the Derby.

As 3-year-olds are wont to do when they arrive in Kentucky in the spring, Always Dreaming changed once he hit the track at Churchill. He gave exercise rider Adele Bellenger all she could handle in the mornings, galloping strongly on his first few visits and leading up to a 5-furlong breeze in a bullet :59.60 under Velazquez eight days before the Derby.

Concerned that Always Dreaming might do too much in his gallops during Derby Week, when the energy level is ramped up significantly with hordes of media and fans all over the stable area, and made a change in rider and equipment for the colt. He changed exercise riders, going to veteran Nick Bush, and sent Always Dreaming to train in draw reins to give the rider more leverage and the ability to force the horse to drop his head. Pletcher called Bush is “draw-rein specialist.”

“The horse had galloped on a daily basis exceptionally well all winter,” Pletcher said. “He was into his training, but he wasn’t rank like he was when he first got here. And it was literally the first day. You could see a difference in his personality.”

Always Dreaming handled the change, after some initial resistance, and continued to train forwardly into the Derby.

“We had shipped him to Gulfstream twice to run, and we shipped him to Tampa, although he didn’t train at Tampa,” Pletcher said. “Both times we shipped to Gulfstream before the allowance race and the Florida Derby, we shipped him over a couple days early because I wanted to school him in the paddock. And we left him at Gulfstream. He galloped nicely there. I didn’t anticipate he would be any different here. And he shipped in before, you know, I would say it gets real crazy around here. The last couple of days leading up to it, Wednesday and Thursday, I think, are especially highly attended, a little bit hectic training hours and a lot of people on the backside. You can almost sometimes have trouble getting to the track.

“I think he really came in here and he knew it was game time, and he was ready to go. So our challenge was keeping him on the ground for 10 days. He galloped twice before Johnny breezed him on Friday and decided not to give him a day off because we wanted to … hopefully calm him down off the breeze.”

Always Dreaming behaved well in the preliminaries and during the walk over, which can unnerve even the most settled Derby contender. He was the picture of health and confidence in the paddock and post parade, Velazquez keeping him calm while the University of Louisville marching band played and the fans sang “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The Violas, Bonomos, West Point Thoroughbreds’ Terry and Debbie Finley, Crupi and countless others connected to the colt watched in the box seats while the race was run. Always Dreaming won in 2:03.59, not the fastest time but faster than California Chrome and just a touch slower than American Pharoah, but galloped out strongly with his ears forward as the celebration kicked off in earnest under the twin spires.

The winning owners dashed across the rain-soaked track to meet Always Dreaming and Velazquez, unconcerned with ruining their shoes or splattering mud on their slacks or dresses. After coming back, again unconcerned with any of the elements and beaming, Mary Ellen Bonomo explained what it meant and how it came to be.

“I just always daydreamed – I probably daydream a little too much,” she said, her voice cracking and eyes welling up under the rim of her pink Derby hat. “I kind of live in Xanadu sometimes. And I said, ‘Why don’t we just name it Dreaming?’ Everybody dreams of something whether it’s a big event or special day, the birth of their child or winning the Kentucky Derby. So I just said, Always Dreaming. It just took off. And now I said, when this horse has its first baby, we will name it Keep On Dreaming. We’re overwhelmed. It’s just a great day.”