LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A trainer and jockey accustomed to success. A headstrong horse with a mind of its own. Together, they harnessed their collective talents to win the Kentucky Derby.
Always Dreaming splashed through the slop for a 2 3/4-length victory Saturday, giving Todd Pletcher and rider John Velazquez their second victories in the race but their first together.
The New York-based duo has teamed up often over the years and is the sport's leading money winners. On their own, they were a combined 2-for-63 going into America's greatest race.
Joining forces, they were unbeatable on a cool, rainy day at Churchill Downs.
"This is so special to win this race with Johnny," Pletcher said. "We've been together for all these years, and this is sweet."
Sent off at 9-2 odds, Always Dreaming made it the fifth straight year that a Derby favorite won, the longest such stretch since the 1970s.
Always Dreaming was followed across the finish line by a pair of long shots: 33-1 Lookin At Lee and 40-1 Battle of Midway.
Always Dreaming ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.59 and paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80.
Always Dreaming — co-owned by Vincent Viola, owner of the NHL's Florida Panthers — won his first career race this year at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar in his third start. He won a maiden special weight race by 11 1/2 lengths for his first in a winning streak now at four.
Also among Always Dreaming's wins is last month's $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach.
"This is the best horse Todd and I have ever come to the Kentucky Derby with," Velazquez said.
Lookin At Lee returned $26.60 and $18.20, and Battle of Midway was another five lengths back in third and paid $20.80 to show.
Pletcher won his first Derby in 2010 with Super Saver; Velazquez won the following year with Animal Kingdom.
Rarely one to show his emotions, Pletcher admitted being teary-eyed behind his sunglasses.
Going into his 17th Derby, Pletcher saddled the post-time favorite for the first time. Much had been made of his 1-for-45 Derby record.
"It's becoming a little more respectable now," said Pletcher, whose 48 starters tied D. Wayne Lukas for the most in Derby history.
Classic Empire finished fourth, followed by Practical Joke, Tapwrit, Gunnevera, McCraken, Gormley and Irish War Cry. Hence was 11th, followed by Untrapped, Girvin, one-eyed Patch, J Boys Echo, Sonneteer, Fast And Accurate, Irap, and State of Honor.
Pletcher also trains Tapwrit, this year's Tampa Bay Derby winner at Tampa Bay Downs, and Patch.
McCraken won this year's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, and State of Honor was the Tampa Bay Derby runnerup.
Thunder Snow, the Dubai-based entry, didn't finish. He broke poorly out of the starting gate and began bucking. He was caught by the outrider and walked back to the barn on his own.
Velazquez used his colt's speed out of the gate to get good position early in a chaotic start that saw several horses, including McCraken and Classic Empire, banged around. He steered Always Dreaming into an ideal trip behind pacesetter State of Honor, with mud flying in all directions on a surface that resembled creamy peanut butter.
"The track is impossible," said Mark Casse, who trains Classic Empire.
On the final turn, Always Dreaming took command as State of Honor faded. Despite chasing a quick early pace, Always Dreaming was still full of run. No other horse threatened him down the stretch, and Velazquez furiously pumped his right arm as they crossed the finish line.
"I got a good position with him early, and then he relaxed," Velazquez said. "When we hit the quarter pole, I asked him, and he responded. He did it himself from there."
Pletcher had his hands full in the days leading up to the Derby, when the colt's behavior was less than a dream.
He was fractious in the morning, refusing to relax.
"I was nervous watching him gallop," the trainer said.
Turns out the dark brown colt knew best.
He channeled his aggression into a determined effort on a track turned into goo by on and off rain before the race.
"I think he really came in here and knew it was game time, and he was ready to go," Pletcher said. "The most important thing to do is bring the best horse to the Derby, and that's what we were able to do."
Times correspondent Don Jensen contributed to this report.