Always Dreaming fulfilled the fantasies of his owners the Brooklyn Boyz and the hopes of bettors who made him the 47/10 favorite in the 143rd Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6.
This son of Bodemeister showed both speed and resolve, winning from the front on the sloppy track under John Velasquez. His success delighted his anxious trainer Todd Pletcher who was very keen to gain a second win in this race.
Always Dreaming kept galloping all the way to the wire to win by three lengths, beating Steve Asmussen’s late closing 33/1 long shot, Lookin At Lee partnered by Corey Lanerie. The more prominently ridden Battle Of Midway (40/1) saddled by Jerry Hollendorfer was five lengths further back in third whilst Mark Casse’s juvenile champion Classic Empire (7/1) could only take fourth, a length behind him.
Graham Motion’s strongly fancied 48/10 second favorite Irish War Cry, the Holy Bull winner and disappointing favorite in the Fountain of Youth, once again proved unreliable. He was beaten 17 lengths and finished out of the money in tenth place having been ridden close to the pace under his replacement jockey Rafiv Maragh. The only other runner to start at a single figure price, McCraken at 7/1, was a bit too keen early and finished eighth, 13 lengths behind the winner.
Another Kentucky Derby Favorite Delivers Despite Uncertainty
Bettors clearly had confidence in Always Dreaming but he had given Pletcher nightmares after arriving at Churchill Downs. The impressive Louisiana Derby winner had previously been a pretty straightforward horse in his work. When he had shipped to other tracks he had been manageable but at this one Always Dreaming seemed to have acquired a different attitude.
The term ‘aggressive’ was used a lot by Pletcher to describe his recent work but that was an understatement. Always Dreaming had been unresponsive to his work rider’s requests to slow down and had been throwing his head into the air and trying to bolt.
Pletcher knew that he was an intelligent colt who had found a way to render his work rider’s brakes useless. Jockeys and work riders can generally use their bodyweight to counteract a pulling horse if their horse’s head carriage is conventional but if the horse throws its head in the air that technique does not work.
Draw reins were consequently deployed on Always Dreaming. They are used in conjunction with conventional reins and loop under the horse’s girth and pass through the rings of the bit before they reach the rider’s hands. As they start from the lowest point of the horse’s girth, draw reins exert head-lowering pressure so the horse’s head is in a position for the bodyweight technique to work.
Something was needed to give Always Dreaming’s work rider a chance of containing his enthusiasm. After an anxiety inducing first application that resulted in a lot of resistance in the form of bucking and other protests, Always Dreaming submitted to the draw reins situation and finally put in a decent piece of work close to the race.
Excessive exuberance can be a race-losing scenario and Pletcher decided to do more work with Always Dreaming than he would usually put on the race prep schedule. He breezed the colt on the eve of the Derby in the hope that it would make him more amenable when it mattered.
In the sloppy conditions with kick back flying everywhere genuine enthusiasm was probably at a premium. Pletcher was concerned about the state of the track but fortunately it did not seem to have any effect on Always Dreaming. He broke well and immediately galloped into a share of the lead. He was the only runner to finish with clean silks.
Whether Velazquez had any say in this tactic is debatable but he probably hoped to be close to the front. When Always Dreaming took the Louisiana Derby he was ridden up with the pace and proved that he could do it the hard way. In the Kentucky Derby the first half mile was described as intense, covered in a time of 46.40 that had many runners struggling to keep up with the pace. It was some achievement for Always Dreaming to win after setting such fractions.
Thunder Snow Provides Early Drama
One of the relatively unknown runners in the Kentucky Derby made things interesting from the moment the race got underway. Drawn in stall two, the Saeed Bin Suroor-trained Thunder Snow had not raced in the US before but booked his starting gate by winning the UAE Derby. This chestnut son of Helmet was proven on dirt and seemed to have realistic prospects of performing well for his owners, Godolphin Racing. Thunder Snow’s starting price of 16/1 with the major USA betting companies suggested that bettors did not consider him to be a no-hoper either.
When the gates opened Thunder Snow managed two normal strides and then started bucking wildly and leaping into the air, testing the balance of his highly respected French jockey, Christophe Soumillon. Unlike Always Dreaming, there had been no reports of unruly behaviour from Thunder Snow prior to the race but he suddenly decided that his trip to the US was to prove his rodeo rather than racing credentials.
Fortunately Soumillon’s balance is second to none and, while he was not in a position to use his whip as he was too busy trying to maintain the partnership, he never looked likely to get Sheikh Mohammed’s silks dirty by getting catapulted into the mud. While everyone else was giving everything to get a decent position going into the first turn, Thunder Snow decided that this race track was not to his liking. Soumillon managed to pull him up before the first turn.
The colt was immediately checked over by the vets to find out if a physical issue was the reason for his extraordinary behaviour but they found nothing that could account for his unprecedented display. Some horses will react with panic when encountering unknown underfoot conditions but perhaps he saw his reflection in the sloppy track and did not want to endure another messy scenario. The muddy conditions of Thunder Snow’s UAE Derby win might have left a mark.
Meanwhile Always Dreaming had managed to get to the rail and was sharing the lead with Mark Casse’s second string State Of Honor going into the first turn with Irish War Cry close up in third. Classic Empire was towards the back in 13th.
As the pack rounded the final turn Always Dreaming had the lead on the rail. Lookin At Lee managed to cut the final corner as horses weakened around him and gave him space to run. Classic Empire was too far back to challenge but had been produced for a run out wide.
In the final furlong Always Dreaming showed his spirit by maintaining a gallop that his rivals could not match. He became the fifth straight favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.