LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A Hall of Fame career in the making, Todd Pletcher has become as synonymous with the Kentucky Derby as the twin spires of Churchill Downs. But, until Saturday, for not winning it enough.
Like the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s with the World Series, winning one championship but repeatedly denied another, America's Greatest Race became an albatross for the seven-time Eclipse Award winner as North America's leading trainer. And that despite winning the 2010 Derby with Super Saver, that year's Arkansas Derby runner-up.
Weep no more, my lady. The grayed, and recently goateed, Texan, who turns 50 in June, need not look at the Derby again with regret, if he ever did.
On the day that he tied mentor Wayne Lukas with a career-high 48 race starters, Pletcher claimed his second Derby title Saturday. Always Dreaming, one of his three in the race, splashed home by 2 3/4 lengths as a lukewarm 9-2 favorite in a 20-horse field. Arkansas Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee finished second by five lengths over Battle of Midway with Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire a troubled fourth.
"I knew we had a big shot with this horse, and I was hoping it would happen," said a weeping Pletcher, who once pointed five horses to the race. "This is almost as special as the first."
Regarding his record, which included almost 4,300 victories and more than $300 million in purse earnings, "I don't know if vindication is the right word, but I felt like another one (Derby victory) would solidify it," he said.
It was the second Derby victory also for Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, whose first came in 2011 with Animal Kingdom for trainer Graham Motion. Velazquez entered racing's Hall of Fame in 2012, two years later becoming the leading money-earning rider in the sport's history.
"This is the best horse Todd and I have ever come to the Kentucky Derby with," said Velazquez. "Nothing against all the others, but this was the best horse."
In a virtual replay of the colt's Florida Derby victory, Velazquez tracked pacesetter State of Honor down the backstretch, surging ahead as the field reached the final turn. Always Dreaming turned back Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry at the head of the stretch, easily holding off 31-1 longshot Lookin At Lee to the wire while 40-1 Battle of Midway took third.
"I got a good position with him early and then he relaxed," said Velazquez. "When we hit the quarter pole, I asked him and he responded. He did it himself from there."
Always Dreaming paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80 after a mile and quarter in 2:03.59 over a sloppy track, the first such surface he had encountered.
Weather conditions aside, "The most important thing is to bring the right horse to the race," Pletcher said.
"This is so special to win this race with Johnny," said the trainer, whose father, J.J. Pletcher, long had horses at Oaklawn Park. "We've been together for all these years and this was sweet."
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, meanwhile, saw his Derby record fall to 0 for 18 with Lookin At Lee second, Hence 11th and Untrapped 12th -- all three with Oaklawn experience.
"I'm definitely proud of 'Lee.' He just keeps coming," said Asmussen. "Drawing the one (post) was tough. He's the first horse in 20 years to run in the top three from the one hole. A lot of credit goes to Corey (Lanerie) for navigating a very good course from there."
Classic Empire recovered for fourth after "getting wiped out at the start," in the words of trainer Mark Casse. Julien Leparoux, the colt's rider, said "he had really only had one race before this (his Arkansas Derby victory April 15) but we'll get them next time."
Behind Classic Empire came, in order, Practical Joke, Tapwrit, Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley, Irish War Cry, Hence, Untrapped, Girvin, Patch, J Boys Echo, Sonneteer, Fast and Accurae, Irap, State of Honor and Thunder Snow, who pulled up early but, a veterinarian said, walked back to the barn.
McCraken and Classic Empire, two early-season Derby favorites before each missed a start in Florida, were involved in the early pinball derby. But at the end, McCraken's trainer, Ian Wilkes, sighed, "The winner was too good."
Always Dreaming goes to Baltimore in two weeks for the Preakness with four straight victories, winning the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park two races after his maiden breaker at Tampa Bay Downs.
Sired by 2012 Arkansas Derby winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister, the dark bay or brown colt races for the Brooklyn Boyz Stables of Vincent Viola, a former nominee for United States Secretary of the Army under President Donald Trump, and Anthony Bonomo, who once was Rick Pitino's guest on the Louisville bench for a basketball game at Madison Square Garden.
"Next to the birth of my children and meeting my wife, this is the greatest thrill of my life," said Viola, owner of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers."Sports on 05/07/2017
Print Headline: Splish, splash: Always Dreaming takes Derby