Vinnie Viola, part of the ownership group when Always Dreaming won last year’s Kentucky Derby, is Derby dreaming again.
Viola watched in near disbelief as Vino Rosso allowed him to return to Churchill Downs with a legitimate shot at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve for the second consecutive year when the colt posted a controversial three-length victory against Enticed in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Aqueduct.
Viola and co-owner Mike Repole waited anxiously as Vino Rosso survived a lengthy stewards’ injury and an objection from Junior Alvarado, who rode Enticed. They were elated when the result was allowed to stand.
When Viola was asked if he will allow himself to imagine winning the Run for the Roses for the second consecutive year, he replied, “It’s very unrealistic and probably not smart to. But I think, appropriate to last year’s horse we won with, I’ll be dreaming of that every night because we’re all dreamers. But that’s not to discount the difficulty.”
In a sense, the 94th running of the Grade 2, $1 million Wood Memorial was about the rich getting richer. Vino Rosso gives Todd Pletcher, who trained Always Dreaming, at least four shots at repeating and gaining his third Derby victory overall.
Remarkably, Pletcher has won a major prep in each of the last four weekends, starting with Rebel Stakes victor Magnum Moon, continuing with Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby champ Noble Indy and then with Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible last Saturday. And now this.
Repole, too, increased the strength of his hand. He also has a financial stake in Noble Indy.
“I feel blessed. I’m excited,” said Repole. “We won the Louisiana Derby and this horse is getting better and better. I feel good to have two legitimate shots in the Derby with two horses that won their last races and won $1 million races.”
Vino Rosso, a son of Curlin, has been a project for Pletcher and his team, showing great promise in the morning but not carrying that over to the afternoon. He ran third in the Feb. 10 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and fourth in the March 10 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in his previous two starts this season.
“We’re feeling like we’re seeing a horse that has that talent and he’s doing well and we felt like the mile and an eighth is something he’s looking for,” said Pletcher, referring to the Wood distance. “This is the performance we’ve been looking for.”
The colt earned 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby with his Wood Memorial win, pushing his total to 107.
Alvarado hardly got the outcome he was looking for after he objected to what he felt was contact initiated by John Velazquez aboard Vino Rosso.
“I got bumped three times. I got pinched on the rail. This was way too much,” Alvarado fumed. “I didn’t even bump him once. This is unacceptable. If somebody else rode that way, he would have been taken down.”
Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Enticed, agreed with Alvarado.
“I thought we had a really good chance to get put up,” he said. “We got hit pretty hard twice and lost our action behind.”
Vino Rosso came off a swift pace set by Old Time Revival, who weakened to eighth in a field of nine. The winner covered the distance in 1:49.79. Restoring Hope, making the leap to Grade 2 competition after breaking his maiden in his previous start, performed well in finishing third for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
In other major races on the undercard:
Grade 1, $400,000 Carter Handicap: Army Mule, a 4-year-old making only his third career start for Viola’s St. Elias Stable, suggested he can be something special after he dominated the Carter by 6 ¼ lengths against Awesome Slew, making his first start since he came in third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. “The sky’s the limit with him,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “He’s just a super talented horse.” According to Pletcher, the June 9 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park could be next for the son of Friesan Fire.
Grade 2, $300,000 Gazelle Stakes: Courtlandt Farm’s My Miss Lilly, ridden by Joe Bravo, showed staying power in passing her first test at a mile and an eighth when she repelled Sara Street by half a length. “She’s a big, long-legged Tapit just dying to run two turns,” said trainer Mark Hennig. “We felt like getting around two turns was going to happen for her at a mile and an eighth.” Hennig said the Longines Kentucky Oaks is a possibility for My Miss Lilly’s next start.
Grade 3, $250,000 Bay Shore Stakes: Pletcher thought of running National Flag in the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes on April 14 at Keeneland at a mile and a sixteenth. He is glad now that he chose the seven-furlong Bay Shore. “We just thought at the last minute that the horse is doing well and he was just coming off a big effort at seven furlongs,” Pletcher said. “Let’s stick with what he knows. At some point down the road, we might stretch him out.” National Flag whipped Engage, coming off an extended layoff, by four lengths.
Grade 3, $150,000 Excelsior Stakes: Discreet Lover, a former $10,000 purchase for owner-trainer Uriah St. Lewis, overcame a stumbling start to score by 2 ½ lengths for jockey Manny Franco. “He eats good. He don’t care who he runs against. He’s always trying,” said St. Lewis.