LOUISVILLE – Always Dreaming does, indeed, have the stuff dreams are made of.
Athony Bonomo’s son, Anthony Jr., spent $100,000 more than was budgeted to obtain the $350,000 yearling at Keeneland’s September sale. Bonomo’s wife, MaryEllen, named him because their family always dares to dream. And trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez performed their jobs so well that the 143rdKentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands became the race the Bonomos dared to imagine.
Always Dreaming, winless through two starts as a 2-year-old but now undefeated through four races this season, shook off a sloppy surface and an overmatched field of 19 to prevail by 2 ¾ lengths against longshot Lookin At Lee on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Bonomo sat beside Vinnie Viola at the post-race news conference, boyhood pals from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had come so far from their joyful yet modest backgrounds.
“Growing up as kids, we won a lot of Derbys,” Bonomo said. “But never in reality.”
This one is wonderfully real for Bonomo, an attorney, and Viola, better known as the owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers. Bonomo and Viola decided to join forces in the racing industry last year, with Viola buying into Always Dreaming, among others.
“I always thought he was a champion as a kid,” Viola said. “We always got along very well.”
This run for the roses was very much about the strength of relationships contributing to success. In all sports, loyalties can be fleeting. Disappointments tend to divide. But the combination of Pletcher and Velazquez has endured.
Yet there had always been a “but” when fans discussed the handiwork of Pletcher and Velazquez, one both men were keenly aware of.
“We had a lot of success in the past, won a lot of important races,” Velazquez said. “But missing this one was definitely a big one.”
Velazquez’s previous Derby win had come aboard Animal Kingdom, a mount he gained in 2011 after Pletcher was forced to scratch Uncle Mo. The brilliant 2-year-old champion had developed a rare liver disorder.
Pletcher rarely shows emotion. This time he did, with tears welling beneath his sunglasses soon after Always Dreaming flashed across the finish line.
“I think this is even more special than the first one,” he said.
Pletcher, winner of a record seven Eclipse Awards as the leading trainer in North America, had produced only one victory with 45 previous Derby starters. That came when Super Saver benefitted from a wet track and a ground-saving trip from Calvin Borel in 2010.
The hard-driving Pletcher desperately wanted a second Derby, knowing only that would quiet the critics who noted that his success in prep races typically failed to carry over to the grandest race of all.
“I’ve taken a lot of criticism for our Derby record,” Pletcher said, “so we were hoping to improve on that.”
He said he used his shortcomings in the Derby as a teaching moment for his children. “When it doesn’t work,” he said, “you have to figure out why.”
He had Always Dreaming figured out perfectly. The dark bay or brown son of Bodemeister broke sharply and patiently sat off front-running State of Honor, biding his time until Velazquez signaled that it was time to go. He blew past State of Honor entering the final turn and was on his way. A resurgent Irish War Cry menaced him briefly, but he did not have nearly enough punch.
Always Dreaming covered the mile and a quarter in 2:03.59. He returned $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. Longshot Battle of Midway and Classic Empire, roughed up at the start, finished third and fourth, respectively.
Viola and Bonomo credited Pletcher with making all the right moves with Always Dreaming. The colt was transferred to Pletcher’s barn after he ran third and second in what would be his only two starts as a 2-year-old.
Pletcher’s recommendation was one they were not happy to hear. He urged them to send the youngster to a farm to give him time to mature.
Always Dreaming returned a very serious racehorse, romping by 11 ½ lengths in his 3-year-old debut on Jan. 25 at Tampa Bay Downs, rolling on the front end to a four-length allowance win at Gulfstream Park and then earning the points he needed to advance to Churchill Downs with a dominant five-length score in the Florida Derby on April 1.
In the end, the Derby unfolded exactly as Viola and Bonomo imagined it would as they grew up two blocks apart in Brooklyn.