Most horses in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands do not run to their capabilities, and for a litany of reasons, from trip woes in a huge field to track conditions, tactical errors, the depth of competition and in many cases, the toll of the road they took to reach the first Saturday in May. With one win from 45 previous Derby starters, Todd Pletcher had covered just about every facet of "what could have been," as his group included ultra-talented horses like Dunkirk, Verrazano, Materiality, Bandini and Outwork who had gotten very good, very quickly but were not able to extend it to the biggest day.
To "peak in the Derby" was a main part of the strategy Pletcher and owners Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola laid out for Always Dreaming this winter. That plan reflected how much ability he had displayed in the morning while still a maiden, whose only race experience as a 2-year-old were a pair of sprint defeats last summer. They chose a tightrope of a plan, with no room for missteps, but the connections pushed the right buttons and – the key of all – had the horse to execute it.
The season began quietly enough in a maiden race on Jan. 25 at Tampa Bay Downs, as Pletcher elected to start Always Dreaming off there rather than at his usual winter hub, Gulfstream Park. Fortuitously, jockey John Velazquez was already in the neighborhood – he had ridden a couple horses for the Pletcher barn in Ocala, Fla., the previous day on the OBS Championship card.
"We wanted him to go two turns, and he was ready to run," Pletcher said of the Tampa route for Always Dreaming. "On that particular day, Gulfstream had a seven-furlong race and a mile-and-an-eighth race. I didn't want to run him a mile-an-eighth since he hadn't run since August, and I didn't really want to run him seven furlongs. Fortunately, Johnny had gone to OBS to ride for us and it worked out that he could be there the next day at Tampa. I said, 'Hey, I think you'll want to ride this horse.' Everything just kind of fell into place.
"It was part of the plan that we had talked about, bringing him along instead of peaking too soon."
Always Dreaming aced the Tampa assignment, powering away to an 11 ½-length win, but the connections had already decided to resist the temptation of proceeding straight to a major Triple Crown prep like Gulfstream's Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, in favor of a lesser race that they felt would be a better progression into the Xpressbet Florida Derby and, most importantly, on to the Kentucky Derby. Always Dreaming obliged with a four-length score at 1-to-10 odds in a 1 1/8-mile March 4 allowance at Gulfstream, and he rose to the occasion four weeks later to win by five lengths in the Florida Derby.
"The one thing that we wanted to do was have the horse peak [in the Kentucky Derby], not in the Florida Derby or not in the Fountain of Youth," Pletcher said. "There was some risk with that plan. Because by not going in the Fountain of Youth, he had no [Derby qualyfing] points at that stage of his career.
"But we felt like we were all comfortable taking our best shot at the Florida Derby as his only point‑eligible prep. And we all were comfortable with the fact that if something happened and he didn't earn enough points, that we were willing to live with that decision."
Even though Always Dreaming came up short in his two juvenile starts, albeit in good efforts (he was beaten by 1 ½ lengths in the first race and by a neck in the second), Pletcher said the experience served the colt well. It also was a contrast to horses Pletcher has brought into the Derby trying to break the "Curse of Apollo," the streak of 135 years since Apollo's 1882 Derby heroics as the only horse to win the classic without racing as a 2-year-old.
"The difference with this horse is that he had a foundation as a 2-year-old: he ran once at Belmont and the second race at Saratoga was a very good race, he ran fast, and once he came to us in September we felt like a freshening would do him some good, and once we got him back we put a plan in place," Pletcher said. "In this business, sometimes it works out. A lot of times it doesn't. So when you kind of have a vision four or five months in advance, then it all comes together, it's especially rewarding."