LOUISVILLE, Ky.--The circumstances were eerily similar for Todd Pletcher.
When he was still 0-fer, he got his first Kentucky Derby win thanks to bad weather and a wet track. Saturday evening on a waterlogged track somehow labeled “wet fast,” Pletcher finally got his second win in America’s biggest horse race.
The favorite Always Dreaming got a perfect ride from Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez, sitting just off the pace before taking over the race with a half-mile to go and going on to a 2¾-length victory over a pair of long shots that made winning exotic and trifecta tickets both rare and valuable.
Not one to show a lot of emotion under any circumstances, Pletcher said he “felt a little bit of everything” with the victory that broke a 1-for-45 slump from 16 previous trips to the Derby; the only other victory being with Super Saver in 2010.
“Validation? I don’t think I’m any better a trainer than I was an hour ago,” Pletcher said. “I felt like another (Derby win) would solidify it. We’ve taken a lot of criticism for our Derby record, so we were hoping to improve on that.”
Velázquez is also the richest earner at his chosen craft, but until Saturday his only Derby victory came as a late substitution for Robby Albarado on board Animal Kingdom in 2011. His victorious strategy this time was to get Always Dreaming through the early traffic – and then sit off the lead on the backstretch before making a winning move.
“Once I got the position I wanted, I was comfortable with where I was,” Velázquez said. “Obviously he wanted the lead, so it made it easy for me to get back from behind (pace-setter State Of Honor) and get into the clear instead of being pinned down inside. Once I got him to the outside he relaxed really well.”
Velázquez said Always Dreaming did not move hard into his bridle until the backstretch, which is where he got to the front to open a three-length lead turning into the stretch.
“I went right back to the rail,” Velázquez said. “He was taking me with nice rhythm. It was pretty easy.”
It was a relief for Pletcher, who watched the 3-year-old sired by Bodemeister get antsy in his morning work over the past week, spending a lot of pent-up energy in a way that had him wondering if the colt might spend all his energy by the time the race got very far along – if not sooner.
“There were a few anxious moments,” Pletcher said. “He was aggressive every morning, and we made a couple of equipment changes and an exercise-rider change, and that seemed to help. Our main focus was just trying to deliver at 6:45 on Saturday (night) and not 6:45 on Thursday morning.”
Set off at odds of 9-to-2, Always Dreaming was Pletcher’s first post-time favorite in his 17 trips to the Derby. That was a good omen, since favorites have won the last five runnings – the first time that has happened since 1896.
The other horses that hit the board were decided not favorites. Not even close.
Stuck in the dreaded “1” hole, second-place Lookin At Lee (33-to-1) held back to set up his typical close. Jockey Cory Lanerie somehow avoided the bucking-bronco start – and immediate finish – of UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow from the next-door gate. Getting past that, Lookin At Lee was patiently ridden along the rail as he picked off horses fading ahead of him late, holding onto second place through the stretch.
Third-place Battle Of Midway (40-to-1) was going after the lead early under Flavien Prat. He settled in behind State Of Honor and Always Dreaming and moved into second around the far turn but was subsequently passed by Lookin At Lee before finishing five lengths behind him.
The long shots fattened the payoffs underneath the winner. The $2 exacta paid $336.20, the $2 trifecta $16,594.40 and the $1 Superfecta $75,974.50.
Generously made the morning-line favorite, Classic Empire (13-to-2) never was the most-backed horse by bettors at any time the past two days. Such rejection of the early line was the least of his problems. Breaking from gate 14 with space between him and McCraken in gate 15, Classic Empire was nearly crushed as McCraken and others from the auxiliary gate veered in sharply. But he closed with a strong finish to get fourth and justified being one of the top-three choices for the Derby.
“We got wiped out at the start,” trainer Mark Casse said. “That’s the problem with the auxiliary gate. McCraken came and nearly knocked us. Classic Empire really got clobbered.”
Casse also blamed the wet track for working not only against Classic Empire but his other colt – State Of Honor – too.
“The track is impossible,” Casse said. “I should have told José (Lezcano) to go right to the rail because the track had been so speed favoring, especially on the rail.”
Now it is on to the Preakness Stakes in two weeks for Always Dreaming. The only other connection from the Derby to speak up quickly about the possibility of challenging him in Baltimore was trainer Joe Sharp, who saw Girvin finish 13th under jockey Mike Smith.
“Mike came back and said he belongs with this bunch,” Sharp said. “He hated the track but still tried to make a run, and then we got wiped out on the turn. Mike said I should run him back in the Preakness or the Belmont.”
For now then it is hurry up and wait to see what rivals Always Dreaming will have at Pimlico – challenges that may pale compared with the Derby drought that Pletcher has endured.
“That’s what I try to inspire my kids with,” Pletcher said. “That you can have challenges, and you’re not always going to do as well as you want, but you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to work hard at it and you’ve got to keep trying and when it doesn’t work, figure out why and keep going.”
And summing up getting his second Kentucky Derby victory, Pletcher said, “I was hoping there was another one and thankful that there was.”