After all they had done together, it felt as if they were cheating on their wives.
No more. They were reunited by the headstrong colt Always Dreaming, who skimmed over the soupy stretch of Churchill Downs on Saturday to win the 143rd Kentucky Derby.
It would be nice to be able to describe a dramatic race. But Velazquez and Always Dreaming fired out of the gate and sailed along the sodden track as if riding the tide. Once they shook loose Battle of Midway at the mile mark, everyone else was running for second place.
“He was ready to run,” Velazquez offered, echoing the understated manner of Pletcher, his longtime friend.
Here is the data: Always Dreaming landed his owners a $1,635,800 first-place paycheck. He completed the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes 3.59 seconds and returned $11.40 on a $2 bet to win. Lookin at Lee finished second, two and three-quarters lengths back, and Battle of Midway hung on for third.
It was a victory in the sport’s headline race, won by a trainer and a jockey united by New York and a colt owned by New Yorkers who know their way around a headline. Always Dreaming is owned by Anthony Bonomo, a New York lawyer, and Vincent Viola — a billionaire Wall Street trader who was President Trump’s nominee to be the secretary of the Army until he withdrew his name in February, citing his business ties.
Viola is also the owner of the N.H.L.’s Florida Panthers, and perhaps appropriately, the Stanley Cup paid a visit to Always Dreaming at Barn 40 on Saturday morning.
“There’s no feeling like this,” said Viola, whose love of racing was stoked by a trip to Aqueduct in 1965. “From that moment, I’ve been passionately attached to this sport,” he said.
Always Dreaming arrived in Louisville as a likely favorite after a big victory in the Florida Derby and timed workouts that harked back to the most recent big horses, American Pharoah and California Chrome.
Then the wheels came off.
In the days leading up to the Derby, the colt showed up each morning as if he were being led to a rodeo chute. He bucked, balked, bolted and basically acted like an adolescent being hauled to summer school.
It forced Pletcher to be part horse mechanic, part horse whisperer. He changed the colt’s workout equipment, employing more constrictive reins. He put a different exercise rider on his back.
“There were a few anxious moments earlier in the week,” Pletcher conceded. “For whatever reason, he was ready to run upon arrival.”
The morning drama fed into a bigger narrative. As successful as Pletcher had been, he had developed a reputation as a top horseman with top horses who had trouble wining the biggest race.
Pletcher was 1 for 45 in the Derby when the gates popped open, a number that even he found troubling. He annually has 100 or more horses in training and operates his stable like a megacorporation, running horses daily on tracks all over the country.
“To me, it felt like I really needed that second one,” Pletcher said. “The first one was extra special. I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win.”
But as a difficult week progressed, the normally taciturn Pletcher displayed some humor that showed that he believed in his colt. He arrived sporting a goatee as steel gray as his close-cropped hair. When asked why, he told a story about being stared at by a woman at the airport.
“I know you,” he recalled her telling him. “You are D. Wayne Baffert.”
His first job was as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, one of the greatest trainers in the sport; Bob Baffert, along with his white hair, won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015.
“I knew I had to change my look,” Pletcher said.
And his luck.
So in the paddock on Saturday, he gave Velazquez a leg up on Always Dreaming, assisting his old friend just as he had 20-some years ago on an inexpensive claiming horse.
As he had back then, he told Velazquez that he would meet him in the winner’s circle.
“We needed one together,” Pletcher said.
They are no longer as young as they once were. But that made Saturday better.
“I really think being behind me for 24 years together,” Velazquez said, “that’s a long time for him to still trust in me and give me the opportunity — it’s not very often it happens in this business.”Continue reading the main story
Saturday marks the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is a one-and-a-quarter mile stakes race in which three-year-old thoroughbred horses compete and has been held annually since 1875. The race is the first leg of what is known as the U.S. Triple Crown alongside the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
Here is a look at the Derby over the years:
A 1901 composite image of Churchhill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held each year.
Racehorse Zev wins the 1923 Kentucky Derby with Martingale second and Vigil third. Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Horses leave the starting gate at the 1939 Kentucky Derby. From left are: T.M. Dorsett (10); Challedon (9); Technician (8); Johnstown (6); On Location (5); Viscounty (4); Heather Broom (3) and El Chico (2). Photo by Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Trainer Meshach Tenny bedding down with his horse Swaps during the days prior to the 1955 Kentucky Derby. Photo by John Dominis//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Ron Turcotte in action aboard Secretariat during the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Secretariat won the Derby and set a speed records that stands to this day. Secretariat would go on to become the ninth horse to win the Triple Crown and the first in 25 years. Photo by Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Jockey Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed to a 1978 Kentucky Derby victory. Affirmed is the last racehorse to win the Triple Crown. Photo by Jerry Cooke/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Race horse Thunder Gulch poses for pictures as he stands in the winner’s circle following his victory in the 1995 Kentucky Derby. Since 1883, a blanket of 554 red roses has been awarded to the winning horse each year. Photo by Getty Images
Owner D. Wayne Lukas holds the winning trophy after his horse, Thunder Gulch, won the 1995 Kentucky Derby. Lukas’s horses have won the Kentucky Derby four times. Photo by Doug Pensinger
Jockey Chris Antley, on the right, aboard Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic, crosses the finish line with his finger pointing number one to second place finisher Menifee and jockey Pat Day at the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Michelle Wilkins/AFP/Getty Images
An interior view of Churchhill Downs during the running of the 2006 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Flickr user Richard Hurt
The entrance to Churchhill Downs, the site of the annual Kentucky Derby, as seen in 2008. Photo by Wikimedia user Jainrajat11
An observer drinks a mint julep during the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 7, 2011. Each year, around 120,000 mint juleps are served at Churchill Downs over a two-day period. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images
Jockey Gary Stevens looks on after a race prior to the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2013. Stevens, a jockey since 1979, originally retired in 2005 and came out of retirement in 2013. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
The field races down the front stretch during the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Kentucky Derby contender California Chrome works during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2014. California Chrome is a 5-2 odds favorite to win the 2014 Derby. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images