The horse's name is Always Dreaming.
A horse with New York-based owners, some who have known each other since childhood—friends who remember long, sunny, summer days at Belmont Park with their fathers, impressed by a sport that included fans who would recognize seats covered with newspapers or race programs as reserved.
A horse with a Hall of Fame jockey and future Hall of Fame trainer, who combined to win many of North America's top races, teamed up this Louisville day in pursuit of America's greatest race.
On the first Saturday in May in Louisville, dreams most assuredly come true. To reach those dreams, it helps to have a fast horse.
With so many dreams on the line May 6 before 158,070 fans, Always Dreaming delivered, executing a flawless tracking trip under John Velazquez before taking command in the stretch to score a 2 3/4-length victory in the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) at Churchill Downs.
Owned by the partnership of MeB Racing, Brooklyn Boyz Stable, Teresa Viola, St Elias Stable, Siena Farm, and West Point Thoroughbreds, Always Dreaming was sent off the 9-2 favorite after his five-length victory in the XpressBet.com Florida Derby (G1). The son of 2012 Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) runner-up Bodemeister —a WinStar stallion who now has a Kentucky Derby winner from his first crop—has four wins in as many starts this season.
"Growing up as kids, we’ve won a lot of Kentucky Derbys, but not in reality," said part owner Anthony Bonomo of Brooklyn Boyz. "We just knew when we got together something special was going to happen. It’s been a family affair."
The present reality had the owners recalling childhood dreams.
"We represent everybody who went to the racetrack with their dads and were astonished by these athletes and fell in love with them," said Vincent Viola, who owns St. Elias. "We are truly kids, in our hearts, from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. We always dreamed and this is one of the dreams that came true."
The victory took some pressure off Todd Pletcher, a multiple Eclipse Award winner who entered the Derby with one win in 45 starts.
"My Derby record has been talked about a lot. … When you look at it now, we’ve been here 17 years and we’ve been fortunate to have two wins, two seconds, and three thirds," Pletcher said. "I feel like I really needed that second one."
As much success as Pletcher and Velazquez have enjoyed together over the years, their prior Derby wins came with others. Pletcher sent out Calvin Borel to victory aboard Super Saver in the 2010 Derby and Velazquez guided home Animal Kingdom for Graham Motion in the 2011 edition of the classic.
In the 2001 Derby, Velazquez guided Invisible Ink to a runner-up finish for Pletcher. But it took them 16 more years to win the race together.
"I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well," Pletcher said. "We have had a great relationship for a long time now, and we have won a lot of races together. This one we hadn't, and this is the one we wanted to win together. And I'm glad we could do it."
"This is the best horse Todd and I have ever come to the Kentucky Derby with," Velazquez said. "Nothing against the others, but this was the best horse."
Always Dreaming completed the 1 1/4-mile classic in 2:03.59 on a sloppy track, the first off-track for a Derby since 2013. He was followed home by longshots Lookin At Lee in second and Battle of Midway another five lengths back in third. Morning-line favorite Classic Empire, the champion juvenile male of 2016 who entered off a score in the Arkansas Derby (G1), finished fourth, just edging Practical Joke.
L and N Racing's Lookin At Lee, by Lookin At Lucky , entered off a third in the Arkansas Derby and earned his third grade 1-placing Saturday. Don Alberto Stable and WinStar Farm's Battle of Midway, a son of Smart Strike, entered off a runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Early on, longshot State of Honor sailed to the lead under Jose Lezcano. He completed the first quarter in :22.70 while Always Dreaming, who broke well and saved ground, raced in second. After State of Honor completed a half-mile in :46.53, Velazquez moved Always Dreaming to the early leader's outside and they were soon on even terms.
After Always Dreaming put a head in front and ran six furlongs in 1:11.12, he was engaged in the far turn by Battle of Midway and Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Irish War Cry. Asked the question, Always Dreaming had the answer. He put away Irish War Cry coming out of the turn and stayed in front of Battle of Midway after reaching the quarter pole in 1:37.27, before edging away from that rival in early stretch.
Trainer Graham Motion was feeling pretty good in the far turn, but Irish War Cry couldn't quite get the lead from the determined eventual winner.
"He went from having a lot of horse at the head of the stretch to not having enough pretty quickly," Motion said. "He was surprised how quickly he emptied out on him. Could it be the distance? He said he didn't seem like he was real crazy about the track. It was quite tacky. We'll have to see."
Despite the extra space provided for the final post in the main gate, post 14 for Classic Empire, and the first post in the auxiliary gate, post 15 for McCraken, the two bumped hard shortly after the start. They bumped again in the stretch as they tried to rally.
"We got wiped out at the start," said Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse. "That's the problem with the auxiliary gate. ... Classic Empire really got clobbered. The track is impossible. Our horse ran extremely well, considering."
In mid-stretch Lookin At Lee launched an inside rally, but just as his connections' hopes began to rise, Always Dreaming found one final gear to avoid any serious late threat.
The winner was bred in Kentucky by Santa Rosa Partners and born Feb. 25. A Kentucky-bred colt, he is out of the grade 3-winning In Excess mare Above Perfection, who also has produced grade 1 winner Hot Dixie Chick.
Bonomo's son, Anthony Bonomo Jr., went to $350,000 to land Always Dreaming at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. The younger Bonomo went over a limit his father put in place that day, but that transgression was most assuredly forgiven Saturday in Louisville.
Always Dreaming was consigned to that sale by Dromoland Farm and Steve Young, agent, signed the ticket.
Always Dreaming is the fifth straight favorite to win the Derby and 10th horse to win the classic after starting from post 5. He returned $11.40, $7.20, and $5.80 across the board. Lookin At Lee returned $26.60 to place and $15.20 to show. Battle of Midway paid $20.80 to show.
Steve Asmussen was proud of the run by Lookin At Lee, who was guided by Corey Lanerie.
"He just keeps coming," Asmussen said. "Drawing (post) 1 was tough. He's the first horse in 20 years to run in the top three from the one hole. A lot of credit goes to Corey for navigating a very good course from there.
"To me, the Kentucky Derby—everything about it is a thrill. I'm just proud of the effort of Lookin At Lee and the whole team."
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, like Asmussen a Hall of Famer, thought Battle of Midway delivered a top effort under Flavien Prat.
"We had a good position coming into the lane, but Todd's horse was too good," Hollendorfer said.
Following Practical Joke in fifth were Tapwrit, Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley, Irish War Cry, Hence, Untrapped, Girvin, Patch, J Boys Echo, Sonneteer, Fast and Accurate, Irap, and State of Honor, to complete the order of finish.
Thunder Snow was pulled up shortly after the start, after breaking extremely rank and bucking hard in the opening sixteenth. An initial veterinary exam revealed no injury and he was able to walk to the backstretch.
The victory was worth $1,635,800 to Always Dreaming's connections. Saturday's payday increased his earnings to $2,284,700. He has a record of 4-1-1 from six starts, including two grade 1 victories in as many attempts. His connections plan to start in the Preakness in two weeks.