LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Todd Pletcher’s permafrost finally melted.
Just a little.
Just enough to show how much this Kentucky Derby victory meant.
Only a few minutes had elapsed after the race, and the eternally stoic thoroughbred trainer was standing on the gooey Churchill Downs track that his colt, Always Dreaming, had just skipped across to win the run for the roses.
And suddenly there it was, escaping beneath his aviator sunglasses and running down his cheek. A slight trickle of tears.
An Ice Prince with hair the color of an iceberg thawed on the spot.
The tears came after Pletcher’s daughter, Hannah, rushed up to hug her father. Then his wife, Tracy. And then his son, Payton.
“I think it’s even more special this time,” Pletcher said.
The last time it happened was in 2010, on a day much like this one – a day when the skies parted after a day of rain and the sun shined and Super Saver got the richest trainer in thoroughbred racing history off the schneid in the biggest race.
That Derby win made Pletcher 1-for-28 in the Derby, a dismal record that was a bit unfair and misleading – it was his 10th Derby, most of them with multiple entries, and only one horse wins that race every year. That record also diminishes overachieving efforts by Impeachment, Invisible Ink and Bluegrass Cat to hit the board.
But still: The guy with the biggest barn in America made a pretty small Derby impact prior to 2010. And after it as well.
Pletcher followed up that victory with 17 other Derby entries from 2011-16, and zero wins. He also had a couple of heartbreaking scratches leading into the race, with favored Eskendraya a late defection in 2010 (clearing the way for Super Saver) and Uncle Mo dropping out of the ’11 race.
Thus Todd Pletcher came into this with the second-most Derby entries in the history of this ancient race, with 45. And just one time did he finish the first Saturday in May in the Derby winner’s circle.
This has been brought up a few thousand times over the years. But the pulseless Pletcher rarely bristled – just as he rarely exulted over the Belmont victories, the Breeders Cup wins and all the other big moments that have pushed him past $335 million in career earnings.
But Saturday, he acknowledged that this was something he very much wanted.
“To me, it felt like I really needed that second one,” Pletcher said. “I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win.”
This demolition Derby was not terribly difficult for the favored Always Dreaming to win once the starting gate opened – he got away cleanly, while all hell was breaking loose to his outside.
Irish War Cry, the second choice in the betting, veered inside from the No. 17 post, creating a ripple effect of traffic trouble. It led McCraken, the fourth choice, to lurch hard inward out of the 15 hole as third choice Classic Empire bobbled slightly and drifted outward from the 14. The collision between those two was colossal, sending Classic Empire careening to the inside and cutting off at least two other horses. Meanwhile, Dubai import Thunder Snow came out of the gate bucking and unwilling to run and was quickly pulled up.
It was a mess.
But jockey John Velazquez competently guided Always Dreaming to an immediate lead, then settled his colt and let State of Honor surge to the front – just as trainer Mark Casse said he would do an hour before the race, a surprise tactical move designed to take advantage of the firmer dirt along the rail.
State of Honor was away too quickly, however, and wasn’t a horse capable of sustaining his run for a mile and a quarter. When he spit the bit halfway through the race, Always Dreaming was there to take charge.
Heading into the far turn, Always Dreaming’s biggest threat appeared to be Irish War Cry – Pletcher said he was worried when he saw that horse’s jockey, Rajiv Maragh, peeking backward under his arm to check for any onrushing challengers.
“Like he had a lot of horse,” Pletcher said.
In reality, Maragh had little horse left. He urged Irish War Cry up to menace Always Dreaming – and then Velazquez let his colt go and the race was all but over at the top of the stretch.
The Velazquez-Pletcher power couple has won a ton of big races during their 24 years of working together – Velazquez has gotten first call on almost every top horse in Pletcher’s barn. But the trainer’s lone Derby victory came with Churchill savant Calvin Borel in the irons, and Velazquez’s lone Derby win was in 2011 aboard Graham Motion’s Animal Kingdom.
“I felt like Johnny and I needed to win one together,” Pletcher said.
Velazquez celebrated the victory by spraying everyone in the winner’s circle with champagne, but the absolute happiest people there were owners Anthony Bonomo and Vincent Viola.
The Brooklyn Boys were childhood friends from the Williamsburg neighborhood, meeting before adolescence. They played stickball and punchball in the neighborhood, but they also went to the New York racetracks – formative experiences.
“Anthony and I represent everybody who went to the racetrack for the first time with their dads and were just astonished by the brilliance of these athletes,” said Viola, a West Point graduate who was Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of the Army but withdrew from consideration in February, citing difficulties extricating himself from business interests that include owning the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers. “We are two kids still in our heart from Brooklyn, New York … who always dreamed. And this is one of those dreams come true.”
Indeed, Bonamo’s wife, Mary Ellen, coined the name for the horse.
“I always daydream,” she said. “I probably daydream a little too much. … Everybody dreams of something, whether it’s a big event or special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby.”
Now the Derby has been won, and Pletcher will take Always Dreaming to a race he scarcely contests and scarcely tolerates, the Preakness. It’s the second leg of the Triple Crown – and as impressive as the son of 2012 Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister has been as a 3-year-old, winning all four races, he could face some very capable challengers.
Start with Classic Empire, victim of the McCraken body block at the start of the Derby. That horse, which was the morning-line favorite, recovered remarkably from that trauma to finish fourth.
“Classic Empire really got clobbered,” trainer Casse said. “Our horse ran extremely well, considering.”
And improbably enough, runner-up Lookin at Lee will merit some Preakness consideration as well. This was a horse that hadn’t won a race as a 3-year-old and only got into the Derby when Pletcher scratched two of his five prospective horses earlier in the week. Yet Lookin at Lee, at 33-1, ran a big race beneath savvy jockey Corey Lanerie.
Lookin at Lee was given the post of death, the No. 1 hole, but Lanerie patiently tucked his horse along the rail near the back of the pack and waited for openings. He had just three in the 20-horse field beaten for more than half the race, but Lanerie kept moving him into daylight up the rail until there was nobody left between his horse and Always Dreaming in the stretch.
“It was a dream trip,” Lanerie said, mud covering most of his face afterward.
But in the end, all dreams belonged to Always Dreaming. And this will go down as one of Pletcher’s greatest training jobs.
In the days leading up to this race, Always Dreaming was too ready to run too soon. He was a handful in morning training, refusing to settle in for routine gallops, which gave Pletcher enough concern that he made some major adjustments.
He put draw reins on the horse, an equipment change designed to keep Always Dreaming from throwing his head up in the air and disrupting his gallops. And he changed exercise riders, opting for more strength to keep the colt under control. The result was a smashing workout eight days before the race, followed by several days of generally tractable gallops.
With a horse that talented, heading into a race this big, those were significant alterations to the established pattern. A whole lot of people in that position would have been reticent to mess with success.
“I don’t recall having to [make big training adjustments] in a high-profile situation,” Pletcher said. “Certainly not with the likely Derby favorite. Never had to do it like that. … It was clear that we needed to make a few adjustments to get it right. And, thankfully, we did.”
Todd Pletcher got the Kentucky Derby right for the second time. This one meant enough that the Ice Prince finally thawed, right there on the Churchill Downs dirt beneath the Twin Spires.