“I have to be honest with you, he was training so well that I would have been disappointed had he not run well,” Pletcher said. “But that was an impressive performance.” Always Dreaming completed the mile and an eight in a scorching 1:47.47 on a lightning-fast surface.
No trainer has ever had a better handle on what it takes to win Florida’s premier prep race for the Kentucky Derby than Pletcher. In delivering his third Florida Derby score in four years, he broke the mark he had shared with John Veitch and Nick Zito.
Pletcher earned previous Florida Derby victories with Scat Daddy (2007), Constitution (2014) and Materiality (2015). He did not have a starter last year.
Pletcher staked everything on the Florida Derby when he decided to bypass the March 4 Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes, the previous Gulfstream Park prep, in order to run in a mile and an eighth allowance race that same day. The colt won that race on the front end, steamrolling a weak field by four lengths.
“Even though we felt like the Fountain Youth is a race that he fit in, [we] felt like he needed a little more foundation, a little more education, and we had a bigger goal later on,” Pletcher said.
They had hoped to use that allowance to teach the youngster to settle a bit off the leaders. The sluggish pace, though, made that impossible. But the willingness to bide their time with the promising 3-year-old still brought rewards.
“What we did learn,” Pletcher said, “is that he came out of the race extremely well.”
Vincent Viola, owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers and part of a large group that owns Always Dreaming, expressed gratitude that their patience was rewarded.
“The horse had a little bit of a funny road to get here, but they’ve got him at the right condition, the right mentality, the right psychology, if there is such a thing, at the right time,” Viola said.
Trainer Mark Casse removed the blinkers from State of Honor and thought the performance was something of an improvement over the second-place finish to Pletcher’s highly-regarded Tapwrit in the Tampa Bay Derby.
“He was rank and he calmed down a little bit,” Casse said. “Maybe off of this race he will relax a little bit more. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw him in Kentucky.”
Antonio Sano, who conditions Fountain of Youth victor Gunnevera, was not discouraged by the outcome after his $16,000 yearling purchase rallied from last. “I’m happy,” he said. “This is an important race to win, but it was a good race for the next one.”
Pletcher, winner of a record seven Eclipse Awards as the leading trainer in North America, knows how treacherous the next step is. For all he has accomplished, a plethora of Kentucky Derby starters has brought him just one victory, when Super Saver benefitted from a muddy track in 2010.
Battalion Runner is yet another 3-year-old from Pletcher's powerful stable that is viewed as having an enormous upside. He, too, must show he can advance from the allowance ranks, a leap that Pletcher has shown can be well within reach.