Always Dreaming a Daunting Kentucky Derby Contender

Always Dreaming’s five-length score in the April 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby made him one of the leading contenders for next month’s Kentucky Derby. (Kenny Martin/Coglianese Photos)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Always Dreaming, winner of the Grade 1, $1 million Xpressbet Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream Park.

Always Dreaming needed a powerhouse performance in his stakes debut in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby on April 1 to prove he belonged on the Triple Crown trail. He delivered. With a five-length runaway victory, the Bodemeister colt punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and became, in the 1:47.47 it took to navigate the race’s 1 1/8 miles, one of the favorites for the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

always dreaming

Dark Bay or Brown Colt

Sire (Father): Bodemeister

Dam (Mother): Above Perfection, by In Excess

Owner: Brooklyn Boyz Stables, Teresa Viola Racing Stables, St. Elias Stable, MeB Racing Stables, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds

Breeder: Santa Rosa Partners (Ky.)

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Kentucky Derby Points: 100  (Ranked No. 3)

Ability: After finishing third and second, respectively, in sprint races in New York as a 2-year-old, Always Dreaming was given an extended break. He posted solid Equibase Speed Figures of 85 and 96 for his two starts in 2016 for trainer Dominick Schettino, but entered his 3-year-old campaign still in search of his first victory.

That changed on Jan. 25 at Tampa Bay Downs when he powered to an 11 ½-length romp going one mile and 40 yards in his first race under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez and his first start for seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher.

Always Dreaming followed with a front-running, four-length win in a Gulfstream Park allowance optional claiming race at 1 1/8 miles – the same distance as the Florida Derby – which gave his connections the confidence to test him in a Grade 1 race.

In the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming was again much the best. He was steadied in traffic entering the first turn when it looked like he very likely clipped heels with Three Rules, who reached the front from post-position 10 and crossed in front of Always Dreaming while angling over from the outside toward the rail. Always Dreaming understandably got a little headstrong right after that incident, but Velazquez was able to settle him a bit on the backstretch, although it does appear that he was pretty keen to impose his will on Three Rules. He overwhelmed the pacesetter entering the stretch and really leveled off nicely, pulling away to win by five lengths and covering the final eighth of a mile in a very strong 12.53 seconds. The winning time was a little more than three-fifths off the track record set by superstar Arrogate on Jan. 28 in the $12-million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes, so I was a bit surprised that Always Dreaming’s Equibase Speed Figure came back a rather light 100.

Racetracks vary greatly from day to day depending upon a number of factors – and the Gulfstream main track was playing fast as evidenced by a seven-furlong track record set by Clearly Now in the opening race – but I thought Always Dreaming might get a higher figure given Arrogate received a 124 for his victory in the Pegasus. Regardless, this $350,000 purchase out of the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale has won three straight by a combined margin of 20 ½ lengths in 2017 and has vaulted from promising maiden to top Kentucky Derby contender.

Running style: Always Dreaming rallied from off the pace in his two sprints as a 2-year-old but has been on or near the lead when stretching out in distance in his three races at three. His natural speed is more of an asset in two-turn races and should allow him to obtain quality positioning in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps even more importantly, I was impressed that he did not get discouraged after the traffic trouble on the first turn of the Florida Derby. He became a bit headstrong, but this is the type of adversity a horse faces in the Kentucky Derby and Always Dreaming still won by five and finished fast. 

Connections: Always Dreaming is owned by an elaborate partnership that includes Brooklyn Boyz Stables, Teresa Viola Racing Stables, St. Elias Stable, MeB Racing Stables, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds. MeB Stables and Brooklyn Boyz Stable are the racing names for Mary Ellen and Anthony Bonomo of New York, respectively. St. Elias Stable and Teresa Viola Racing Stables are the racing operations of Vincent Viola and his wife, Teresa. Vincent Viola, also a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, is the owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers.

Anthony R. Manganaro, Nacho Patino and David Pope founded Siena Farm on 225 acres in Paris, Ky., and West Point Thoroughbreds is the racing partnership founded by West Point graduate Terry Finley that has raced nine Grade 1 winners.

Always Dreaming’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, is the all-time leaders among trainers in career Thoroughbred racing earnings with $334,743,887 through April 3. An assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas before going out on his own in 1996, Pletcher is a seven-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer.

In addition to Always Dreaming, Pletcher also trains Kentucky Derby hopefuls Tapwrit, Malagacy, Patch, Master Plan and One Liner. Pletcher won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, the Belmont Stakes with Rags to Riches in 2007 and the 2013 Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.

Like Pletcher, Always Dreaming’s jockey, John Velazquez, is the all-time leading rider by purse earnings with $361,024,674 through April 3. A two-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding jockey, Velazquez won his first and only Kentucky Derby to date in 2011 on Animal Kingdom. He also guided Rags to Riches to victory in the Belmont Stakes in 2007 and won the 2012 Belmont aboard Union Rags. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2012. Velazquez also is the regular rider of One Liner.

Pedigree: Always Dreaming is from the first crop of 2012 Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, a blazing-fast runner capable of carrying his speed a long way. Bodemeister finished second to I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012, grudgingly relinquishing the lead in the former after a setting a blistering pace through a half-mile in :45.39.

It’s impossible to judge a sire by only one crop, but three stakes winners and a top Kentucky Derby hopeful bodes well (pardon the pun) for Bodemeister.

Always Dreaming is out of four-time stakes winner Above Perfection, by In Excess. Above Perfection won the Grade 3 Las Floras Stakes at three-quarters of a mile and also was a stakes winner at seven-eighths of a mile. She also is the dam (mother) of Grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick, Always Dreaming’s half-sister (same dam, different sire).

Always Dreaming’s grandam (maternal grandmother) was unraced but produced a pair of stakes winners: the aforementioned Above Perfection and multiple stakes winner Made to Perfection.

Always Dreaming looks like a rising star and it would be foolish to consider him anything but a top contender for the Kentucky Derby. He’s got tactical speed, room to grow, an exciting pedigree and Hall of Fame connections. Equibase Speed Figures suggest he has some catching up to do, but I loved how he finished the last eighth of a mile in the Florida Derby.

Pletcher’s 1-for-45 record in the Kentucky Derby will generate plenty of criticism over the next few weeks, but this is arguably the toughest race in the world to win and it takes a lot of luck to win, in addition to the right horse. Always Dreaming could be that horse, and maybe all Pletcher needs this year is a little racing luck.

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