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TrackNotes: Always Dreaming Cranks Derby

The cranky Always Dreaming, along with the longtime money combo of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, scored a decisive 2 3/4-length victory in what turned out to be, thank you for asking, a very entertaining and memorable 143rd Kentucky Derby weekend.

It seemed a celebration of this racing world we wander as the outfront owners, a coupla Brooklynites seemingly right out of central casting, Anthony Bonomo and Vincent Viola, added perhaps the ultimate chapter in their friendship-since-childhood partnership. They represent the ownership of, take a deep breath, MeB Racing, Brooklyn Boyz Stable, Teresa Viola, St. Elias Stable, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds.

Looking and acting like a tough-guy pussycat, Viola summed it up after the Derby. "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." His eyes were like saucers as he told of his father teaching him how to act as he made his first childhood visit to Aqueduct.

It was a surreal scene as the always-thundering, 20-horse herd, kicked up mud, mist, spray and water as the intermittent sun glared off the sheets of slop on the sealed track. On Saturday, after rain most of the week, the sun and blue skies made regular visits to Churchill Downs, but not without bringing even more rain in between. There was no chance they'd be able to fluff the track back to normal, but it made for a lot of speed with a few closing horses winning for good measure, adding nicely to the variety of a fun weekend.

Our prized Thoroughbreds didn't seem to mind the rain and cold. Although with a tad of requisite bitching by the announcers, the cold weather helped keep the horses cool, enabling them to summon any speed they needed without overheating.

Todd Pletcher, the brilliant trainer of 2-year-olds who has struggled with the Run to the Roses, won just his second Derby, but still couldn't dodge the barbs that follow not winning "the big one," although he has, twice now. After sending Calvin Borel and Street Sense - by the way, the first horse to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby - to the winners circle in 2010, Pletcher and Johnny V. actually went off the 9-2 favorites. Plenty of price for me, thank you again.

Visibly steamed after taking the question after the race, Pletcher seemed to be thinking, "Dammit, we just won the Derby!" but took the high road and congratulated ownership and sidekick Velazquez, the highest earning jock of all time, most of it with Pletcher. "I felt like Johnny and I needed one together." Pletcher was seen some hours after the Derby leading the elephant out of the room for the last time.

You can't ever gloat, because the losses always bring you down to earth, hard, but the wondrous performances by place horse Lookin At Lee, from the dreaded one post, and show entry Battle of Midway were enough to make you trust your hunches, I think. They were nice, but Always Dreaming, to pull out an old saw, was much the best.

Classic Empire, perhaps the most talented horse in the race, under Julien Leparoux, took punch after punch, held his legs, worked his darnedest, and finished fourth. It's one thing to need a race, as we all agree he did, but running the Kentucky Derby to do it . . . don't give up on this guy.

To complete the accounting, 'Dreaming won in a decidedly middling 2:03.59 and paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. Lookin At Lee paid $26.60 and $15.20, and Battle of Midway paid $20.80 for Show. Commensurately, the exacta paid $336.20 for two dollars, the trifecta $16,594.40 for two dollars and a whopping $75,974.50 for just one dollar in the superfecta.

Potential heart breaker Gunnevera tried hard but never really threatened, finishing seventh. Irish War Cry contended most of the way, nearly satisfying his faithfuls, but fell seriously short down the stretch, finishing 10th. J Boys Echo seemed to give up, finishing 15th. Hence tried to run his race but was outrun by the horses who were better, finishing 11th.

Fluctuating for two days on the tote board, heart tugging Patch, with only one eye, his right, seemed, predictably, to try to get the lay of the land out of the gate, way out in the 20 hole, the only possible place where he couldn't see the other horses. He held his own in the heavy traffic of the Derby but could only do 14th. Irap officially earned won the One Hit Wonder award, getting hassled much in said traffic, and finished 18th.

UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow chose not to. Just steps out of the gate, he stopped, jumped straight up in the air as either one of my two cats might, bucked, and was calmed by jockey Christophe Soumillon. We can't confirm his beeline to the $2,500 mint julep stand.

It was a great weekend.

Silver-maned Bob Baffert, who's won this race four times, got unlucky without an entry vis a vis the Derby itself, but made his own inimitable impact by winning the Kentucky Oaks on Friday with Abel Tasman, piloted by the actively legendary Mike Smith, $20.40, $9.20, $6.40 thank you very much. In the interest of full disclosure and total stupidity, I was all over the window on this horse, but did not include him in my Oaks/Derby double. If I had . . . Any horseplayer will tell you finding the horse is only one thing. Crafting the bet is the Louvre.

Primary owners China Horse Club, a group of China guys so wealthy they had to find a way to spend their money and have chosen some of the Western vices, seemed in shock at the Oaks victory, but demurely enjoyed it all the same.

Friday turned out, ahem, to be very enjoyable. The morning ended without any deadline scratches in the Derby.

Fresh coffee, the Big World, Romantic Vision 1-2 at 7-1 and 15-1, respectively, in the La Troienne got things off to a smashing start. Bird Song, on paper questionable, jumped The Alysheba at 7-1. Cashing is always fun, even if it's Latent Revenge at 23-1 for place in the Turf Sprint.

We got a chance to check in with American Pharoah, the stud muffin hanging at Coolmore Farms these days. He looked great and displayed his trademark affability. He never seemed to mind having his picture taken with giggling fans of all ages. Telling how he visited the 'Pharoah while he was in town, Baffert was moved to moistened eyes, understating "It's always good to see him." And the others he trained, too.

Patch seems just as friendly.

NBCSN and NBC did a solid job with the telecast, although they might have done better with the backstories on some of the undercard stars.

You have to give a lot of respect to ESPN refugee Mike Tirico in one of his new roles at NBC. He did his homework and didn't seem to struggle getting the minutiae out, but he didn't look relaxed and didn't seem to have the racing passion. At least he's lucky to be at the network that covers racing these days and couldn't ask for much more easy fun as this. Keep the faith, he'll come around.

Coverage of the fashion didn't overwhelm, but it sure was funny to see the rain ponchos as that final accessory. The smarts used clear rain gear to let their outfits be seen.

There was no Tara Lipinski or Johnny Weir, addition by subtraction - although I'd like to see what Tara might be able to do, because she never had a chance with Weir's ego dominance.

This is stupid, I know, but it was fun and funny to see Aaron Rodgers in deep in the program intensely quizzing some racetrack wiseguy type. Teammate Randall Cobb and another guy they didn't name were so sweetly concentrating on getting their handicapping on in the festive atmosphere. Showing Tom Brady on Saturday, cynically figuring he got paid to be there, elicited the inner catcalls. Like I said: Stupid.

Churchill Downs reported 158,070 fans in attendance, short of the record 167,000 last year, but it didn't feel that way. The rain kept many inside, empty seats abounding on the apron.

My sister-in-law Kathy asked me to float a cool $20 to win on Always Dreaming. I say parlay. To be continued.

'Dreaming's connections are saying yes to the Preakness in two weeks. As difficult as it is, this horse has the talent. Does he have the American Pharoah magic?

That's why they run the races.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021