Midlantic hopefuls well beaten as Always Dreaming wins Kentucky Derby
by Frank Vespe
In the end, Always Dreaming came true.
As for the mid-Atlantic hopefuls racing over a sealed, wet-fast track in this afternoon’s Kentucky Derby, well, they were just all wet.
Always Dreaming, the Todd Pletcher trainee who had romped in the Grade 1 Florida Derby last month, did much the same today at Churchill Downs, stalking a solid early pace before drawing away to a 2 3/4-length victory, his fourth win in six career starts. Running time for the 1 1/4 miles was a moderate 2:03.59.
With the win, Always Dreaming became the fifth consecutive betting favorite to win the Derby, a remarkable streak following decades in which the chalk rarely crossed the wire first. He paid $11.40 to win and was followed by longshots Lookin At Lee (33-1) and Battle of Midway (40-1). Classic Empire, the morning line favorite who drifted up to nearly 7-1, was fourth.
An emotional Todd Pletcher, trainer of Always Dreaming, made the rarest of rare trainer admissions in the aftermath of the race.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a clue about my other two horses,” he told reporters. “I was so intense following Always Dreaming up front that I never did get a chance to pick them up.”
For the record, his other horses, Tapwrit and Patch, were sixth and fourteenth, respectively.
“This is so special to win this race with Johnny,” Pletcher explained, referencing Dreaming’s jockey, John Velazquez. “We’ve been together for all these years and this is sweet.”
It was, all in all, less sweet for the two horses bred in the mid-Atlantic in the race. Irish War Cry, the New Jersey-bred who went off as the 4.80-1 second choice, loomed a major threat at the head of the lane but faded to finish 10th; and Pennsylvania-bred Fast Accurate, a 41-1 outsider at post time, was only briefly engaged in the proceedings before finishing 17th.
Irish War Cry seemed to have an ideal spot nearing the race’s decisive moments. He was a comfortable fourth, three lengths off leader State of Honor through a half-mile in 46.53 seconds, and after three quarters in 1:11.12, he was just a head behind new leader Always Dreaming. He was moving in hand, and a confident Rajiv Maragh aboard him took a peek behind.
“Going into the turn, I seemingly had a lot of horse,” Maragh explained. “I was ready to engage the five horse (Always Dreaming), [but] he just kind of quit running on me.”
Trainer Graham Motion’s charge has run a couple of terrific races, impressively scoring in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. In between, he stopped badly in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, a result that left Motion at a loss for explanations. In the immediate aftermath today, he faced a similar conundrum.
“Rajiv said he was cruising at the top of the stretch,” Motion recounted. “He said he kind of went from having a lot of horse to not having a lot of horse in three strides. Could it be the mile-and-a-quarter? Maybe, but I think it’s too early to say. He just didn’t finish up.”
For the connections of Fast and Accurate — a horse whose wins had all come on turf or synthethic and whose longshot score in a sluggish running of the Grade 3 Spiral earned him a spot in Louisville — the answer was clearer.
“All is well,” shrugged trainer Mike Maker. “Not good enough.”
Dr. Kendall Hansen, majority owner of Fast and Accurate, had said prior to the race that the team’s plan was to make the lead and take the field as far as they could. That didn’t happen, though not for lack of trying.
Kendall Hansen clip
“We wanted to make the lead but we weren’t fast enough,” said jockey Channing Hill. “I thought I shot early on but not able to quicken him.”
The race began on a strange and disconcerting, even frightening, note. Just a couple of jumps out of the gate, Thunder Snow, the UAE Derby winner representing Godolphin Racing, veered to his right, behind the field, and began to buck wildly, nearly unseating rider Christophe Soumillon in the process.
Soumillon managed to maintain his seat, later saying, “I don’t know what happened at the start.”
Dr. Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian, reported that the horse was none the worse for wear.
“Thunder Snow galloped back to the paddock comfortably under his own power,” he said. “He was examined by Dr. Jennifer Kaak and was found to have no injuries and walked back to his barn under his own power.”
The question now, for most of the field, will be: To Preakness, or not to Preakness?
For Always Dreaming, Pletcher, and the ownership group which includes MeB Racing, Brooklyn Boyz, Teresa Viola, St Elias, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds, the answer is likely to be yes; after all, a potential Triple Crown beckons, and there’s only one way to get there.
For the rest of the field, it becomes a time of assessment. How well did we run, how well can we run, and will that be enough to get the money at Old Hilltop?
The twin spires are a memory now. The cupola and the weather vane are dead ahead.