LOUISVILLE, Ky. — All week you heard how keyed up Always Dreaming was in the mornings, and how he might not relax amid the madness of Derby Day. False alarm, because the sleek colt never had an anxious moment in Saturday’s 143rd Kentucky Derby.
Always Dreaming could not have had a smoother trip under John Velazquez, cruising to a 2¾-length victory over long shot Lookin At Lee before a crowd of 158,070 at Churchill Downs.
“When I asked him to go, he responded right away,” Velazquez said. “At the quarter pole, I knew they were going to have to run hard to beat him.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who rarely shows emotion, leaped triumphantly, hands in the air, and freely admitted there were tears behind his sunglasses. For the leading money-winner of all time, a second Derby victory was priceless.
“I think it’s even more special than the first one,” said Pletcher, who won in 2010 with Super Saver. “There’s been a lot of talk about our Derby record, so this is very sweet. We’ve run a lot of horses  in it, and now we’ve got two wins in 17 years.”
Never was a man more thrilled to be 2-for-48.
Manhasset residents Anthony Bonomo Sr. (pronounced Buh-NO-mo) and his wife, MaryEllen, are the original owners of Always Dreaming. Their son Anthony Jr., a third-year law student at St. John’s, helped pick him out at a Keeneland yearling sale and paid $350,000, $100,000 above the limit his father set. Among their partners is Vinnie Viola, a boyhood friend of Anthony Sr.’s and the owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers.
At the trophy presentation, MaryEllen Bonomo said: “I named him that because I’m always daydreaming about something. So I thought I should name a horse Always Dreaming.”
Her husband, former chairman of the New York Racing Association’s board of directors, said: “I don’t know if there are words to describe this,” then apologized to their niece for missing her first Communion. He figured she would forgive him.
Velazquez put Always Dreaming in the perfect spot and never left it. They broke well and stayed second on the rail, tracking long shot State of Honor through quick fractions of 22.70 and 46.53 seconds. State of Honor retreated after 6 furlongs in 1:11.12. Always Dreaming led by a head then, and the son of Bodemeister always looked like a winner, finishing 1¼ miles in 2:03.59 on a track rated wet fast.
Rajiv Maragh, on 5-1 second choice Irish War Cry, moved three-wide into the stretch and glanced over his right shoulder to check on the closers. That worried Pletcher, who said, “I thought that meant Rajiv figured he still had a lot of horse left.”
He didn’t. The brief challenge evaporated quickly, and Irish War Cry backed up to 10th. Lookin At Lee, a 33-1 shot, completed a $336.20 exacta, and 40-1 Battle of Midway made the trifecta worth $16,594.40.
Classic Empire rallied for fourth after being bumped hard at the start. The other also-rans were Practical Joke, Tapwrit, Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley, Irish War Cry, Hence, Untrapped, Girvin, Patch, J Boys Echo, Sonneteer, Fast and Accurate, Irap and State of Honor. Thunder Snow, who broke poorly and began bucking, was caught by an outrider but was not injured, veterinarian Keith Latson said.
Pletcher also ran Tapwrit and Patch but was so focused on Always Dreaming that “I don’t have a clue about my other horses.”
Always Dreaming paid $11.40 as the Derby’s fifth consecutive winning favorite, which hadn’t happened since 1895. He earned $1,635,800 for Brooklyn Boyz Stables and MeB Racing Stables (both owned by the Bonomos), Teresa Viola Racing Stables, St. Elias Stable, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds.
Pletcher, 49, and Velazquez, 45, are the century’s most potent trainer-jockey combination, but their first Derby victories came with other partners. Velazquez won for Graham Motion on Animal Kingdom in 2011, and Calvin Borel was on Super Saver.
“This is the best horse Todd and I have ever come to Kentucky with,” Velazquez said. “We’ve had so much success together, but never in the Derby.”
“This is so special to win this race with Johnny,” Pletcher said. “I knew we had a big shot with this horse and I was hoping it would happen. We’ve been together all these years, and this is sweet.”
AT THE WIRE
PLACE1-Lookin At Lee
SHOW11-Battle Of Midway
$2 Exotic payoffs
The Preakness Stakes
When: May 20, 2017
Track: Pimlico Race Course
Last year: Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist held the lead on the muddy track throughout the first three-quarters of a milee, staying neck and neck with Uncle Lino. But at the top of the stretch, Exaggerator exploded past the field and won going away. Cherry Wine nosed out Nyquist at the wire.