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Boyhood friends on top of racing world after Kentucky Derby win

Manhasset resident Anthony Bonomo, Sr. celebrates after Always

Manhasset resident Anthony Bonomo, Sr. celebrates after Always Dreaming won the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 6, 2017, in Louisville, Ky.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Anthony Bonomo Sr. and Vinnie Viola were young, they lived a few blocks apart in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They played stickball together and thought about where life might lead them. They had no idea what fate would have in store for them Saturday, when they stood in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

“Growing up as kids, we won a lot of Kentucky Derbies, but never in reality,” said Bonomo, a resident of Manhasset who got into racing in 2006 when he and his wife, MaryEllen, bought two horses. They had no idea it would lead them, his old buddy and their partners to the pinnacle of the sport.

The Run for the Roses is the world’s most famous race, and thanks to the colt Always Dreaming, late Saturday afternoon the Bonomos and Viola were speaking to millions on NBC. But it’s not as if this was their first taste of big-time success. Bonomo is the former chairman of the New York Racing Association. Viola owns the NHL’s Florida Panthers.

Yeah, but there’s nothing that compares to a Derby victory. Well, almost nothing.

“Someone asked me on the way in, is this the greatest feeling you have ever had?” Viola said. “And I said yes. And he said, the best? Well, besides the birth of my children and meeting my wife.”

Even though Viola is two years older than Bonomo, he said he always looked up to him.

“I’ve known Anthony since I was 9 or 10 and he was maybe 7 or 8. He was always a larger-than-life champion guy. Didn’t matter if it was stickball or punch ball, he was going to fight until he won.

“Always thought he was a champion as a kid.”

The Bonomos bought their Derby champion for $350,000 at Keeneland’s September 2015 yearling sale, a showcase of top-class horseflesh. Bonomo Sr. wasn’t there and didn’t want to spend more than $250,000, but his son Anthony Jr. bid an extra $100,000 because he and their bloodstock agents liked the son of Bodemeister’s looks so much.

MaryEllen Bonomo named the colt. “I probably daydream a little bit too much,” she said. “I kind of live in Xanadu sometimes. And I said, ‘Why don’t we just name it Always Dreaming’? Everybody dreams of something, whether it’s a big event or a special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby.

“We’re overwhelmed. It’s such a great day.”

Nothing like the old days when Anthony Sr. used to sneak into Belmont Park and Aqueduct when he and Vinny would have “maybe $3 between us. We would beg some older man to make a bet for us. He would say, ‘How old are you?’ And I would say, ’24.’ ‘’

Viola marveled at how far from the old neighborhood they’ve come together.

“We have to say in our heart we are really still two kids from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn who always dreamed,’’ Viola said. “And this is one of the dreams that came true.”

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