Always Dreaming: The making of a Kentucky Derby winner | Dick Jerardi

Kentucky Derby Horse Racing
Always Dreaming is cloaked with a blanket of roses after winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. .

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Last summer at Saratoga, old friends Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo, who grew up within blocks of each other in Brooklyn and had each owned horses, decided to go partners on all the horses Bonomo owned and some that Viola owned.

Viola had only two stipulations. He would manage the horses and Todd Pletcher would train them. That was not an easy call for Bonomo who had to tell another boyhood friend, Dominick Schettino that he would no longer be training horses for his stable.

It was Bonomo who purchased Always Dreaming for $350,000 in September 2015. After two decent, but non-winning starts with Schettino last summer, the partnership was formed and the colt went to Pletcher.

Just a few minutes before 7 p.m. Saturday evening at Churchill Downs as Always Dreaming was pulling away from the field in the Kentucky Derby, there was no debating any decisions the partners had made. They were all heading for the winner's circle across from the grandstand and through the sloppy surface their colt had clearly loved where they would be joined in a forever picture by all their family members, Bonomo's great friend, Louisville coach Rick Pitino and more friends and relatives than they probably knew they had.

Viola, a West Point grad and the owner of the Florida Panthers, was nominated to be Secretary of the Army earlier this year. He eventually had to decline because he said it was too difficult to divest all of his business interests. And that may have included Always Dreaming so he could have missed a scene he absolutely did not want to miss.

Viola's father, a truck driver, was a race tracker. His son hasn't forgotten their time together.

"Just magical being next to your dad as he was really committed to a sport he loved,'' Viola said "My dad handicapped and bet, quite frankly, every day of his life. And I remember so distinctly the crowds, Saturday afternoon crowds and I remember distinctly that the men would respect each other because they would fold their newspapers and put them in the seams of the seat. As a young man, I thought, wow, that's really cool. These guys are pretty impressive men at the track.''

Now, as men, Viola and Bonomo own a Derby winner.

"For me, Anthony and I, I think, represent everybody who went to the racetrack for the first time with their dads and were just astonished by the brilliance of these athletes, these equine athletes,'' Viola said. "Never fell out of love with the sport . . . we have to say, really, we are two kids still in our heart from Brooklyn, New York, Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, who always dreamed. And this is one of the dreams to come true.''

If you have horse racing dreams, there are few better places to fulfill them than Todd Pletcher, Inc. He has vision in a sport where instant gratification is always tempting. Even though his Derby record was bizarre (1-for-45), he never stopped thinking how he could change it.

"To me, it felt like I really needed that second one, you know?'' Pletcher said. "One more. And the first one was extra-special. I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win.''

Pletcher did not care about the Derby prep races this year. He only cared about the Derby. When he got the colt in September, he immediately sent him back to Jim Crupi who had prepared him as a yearling. Pletcher wanted Always Dreaming to get some time away from the track.

"When he sent him back to us, he was in great form, looked fantastic,'' Pletcher said. "We could see right away, as soon as we were (working) him, that he had extra-special talent.''

But Pletcher did not rush Always Dreaming in 2017, first winning a maiden race at Tampa Bay Downs, then an optional claimer at Gulfstream Park, each win a blowout. He resisted all the preps until he had to put the colt in the Florida Derby to get Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Always Dreaming crushed that field too,

"We were going there with a plan of, hopefully, ending up here,'' Pletcher said. "As you know in this business, sometimes it works out. A lot of times it doesn't. So when you kind of have a vision four or five months in advance, then it all comes together, it's especially rewarding.''

After a great final workout eight days before the race, Pletcher had to call an audible when Always Dreaming was far too aggressive in his morning gallops. He changed exercise riders and equipment.

"Part of what we do as trainers is we observe how things are going with the horse, how they're galloping,'' Pletcher said. "And sometimes we'll make adjustments . . . The main thing is I wanted to control the pace of his gallops. He was essentially wanting to run the race in the morning and we couldn't do that.''

That Pletcher won this Derby with jockey John Velazquez was especially rewarding for both. Pletcher has won 4,301 races, Johnny V. has ridden 5,709 winners, 1,620 of those wins were together including 262 graded stakes.

"I felt like Johnny and I needed one together,'' Pletcher said.

So they got one.

"I really think being behind me (for so long), for him to still trust in me and give me the opportunity,'' Velazquez said. " It's not very often it happens in this business.''

Pletcher heard all the talk about his Derby record.

"We've been taking a lot of criticism for our Derby record, so we were hoping to improve on that,'' he said. "That's what you do. That's what I try to inspire my kids with - that you can have challenges and you are not always going to do as well as you want, but you got to get up and work hard at it and you got to keep trying. When it doesn't work, figure out why and keep going.''

Pletcher figured it out and he already knew the most critical element in the sport.

"The most important thing is to bring the best horse to the Derby, and I think that's what we were able to do this year,'' Pletcher said.

So, now after a North American record $209 million was bet on the Derby Day card, it is on to Pimlico and the May 20 Preakness. Always Dreaming was a decisive Derby winner so few of the Derby horses will be back to challenge in Baltimore.

Always Dreaming is 4-for-4 for Pletcher and the partners, winning his races by a combined 23 lengths. Bonomo's wife Mary Ellen came up with the name. Appears she got it just right.

"I just always daydreamed,'' she said. "I probably daydream a little too much. I kind of live in Xanadu sometimes. And I said, 'Why don't we just name it Dreaming?' Everybody dreams of something whether it's a big event or special day, the birth of their child, winning the Kentucky Derby. So I just said, Always Dreaming. It just took off. And now I said, when this horse has its first baby, we will name it Keep on Dreaming.''

jerardd@phillynews.com

@DickJerardi