BOZICH | Validation? Jubilation? Todd Pletcher (finally) doubles - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Validation? Jubilation? Todd Pletcher (finally) doubles his Kentucky Derby pleasure

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Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velasquez silenced their Kentucky Derby critics Saturday. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velasquez silenced their Kentucky Derby critics Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – As the horses surged into the stretch in the Kentucky Derby, even trainer Todd Pletcher looked to see which challengers were coming to serve him another blast of heartburn.

Which horse would run down Pletcher’s Derby favorite, Always Dreaming? Who was going to give Pletcher another Atlanta Falcons’ moment?

The challengers gathered on the outside as well as on the inside of Always Dreaming and jockey John Velasquez.

Sure, Pletcher proved he could train a Derby winner seven years ago. But the wise guys always talked about Pletcher’s 44 beaten Derby horses more than the one he won with Super Saver seven years ago.

Nobody saddled more losers in the Derby than Pletcher. Check the record. It is not pretty. There is a 17th place finish, an 18th, a 19th and three that finished 20th.   

To finish 20th is to finish last.

Pletcher’s stable has won more than $336 million during his Hall of Fame career. What’s he doing with more last-place finishes than first-place finishes in the Derby?

“Our Derby record has been talked about a lot,” Pletcher said. “And like we talked about it, I felt like for the first 25 starters I had to defend my Derby record. I felt like this week people were defending it for me for some reason.”

There’s nothing to defend any more.

There’s a second dazzling Derby victory to celebrate. Outrunning Lookin at Lee, Irish War Cry, Classic Empire and every other 3-year-old colt that tried to challenge him, Always Dreaming moved powerfully down the stretch and won the 143rd Derby by 2 ¾ solid lengths.

Lookin at Lee held on for second, which was strange because the colt was 33-to-1. It was another five lengths back to Battle of Midway, a longer shot at 40-to-1. That is how you win the Kentucky Derby with authority – and become the fifth consecutive favorite to head directly to the winner’s circle.

The winner paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. The 5-1 exacta returned $336.20 while the trifecta was worth $16,594.40.

You cannot put a dollar amount on what the victory meant to Pletcher. Somebody asked the trainer whether he felt elation or vindication?

“A little bit of everything,” he said. “I don’t know about validation. I feel like I’m a better trainer now than I was an hour ago … I felt like I really needed the second one … I’ve taken a lot of criticism.”

So has Velasquez, whose Derby record was a modest 1-for-18.

Velasquez rode the colt brilliantly, saving ground by tucking Always Dreaming close to the rail as the 20-horse field moved past the clubhouse the first time.

Actually it was only a 19-horse field by then. Thunder Snow was so rank leaving the starting gate that jockey Christophe Soumillon pulled the colt away from the pack and out of the race. He was led to the paddock for a veterinary exam, which uncovered no injuries.

Now the soggy Churchill Downs crowd of 158,070 was about to discover if Pletcher would have another Derby loss to explain or a reason to pump his fists toward the sky

Velasquez was unaware of the Thunder Snow drama. The jockey had a race to win. He kept his colt close to the rail on the backstretch, occasionally putting his nose in front, never dropping back beyond third.

When it was time to run, Always Dreaming got serious. He was a half-length better than Lookin at Lee with a quarter mile to run. It was another head back to the Irish War Cry, who appeared to be making a determined run and gaining on the outside.

This has been the spot in the Derby where something strange happened to Pletcher. This was the spot where the wise guys expected his record to slip to 1-for-48 because (as usual) Pletcher had three horses in the race. (His other two colts were Tapwrit, who finished sixth, and Patch, who was 14th.)

Nothing strange happened. Something spectacular happened. The colt handled the sloppy track (which was later listed officially as fast wet with poise and determination, drawing away for the decisive victory that is likely to send the colt to the Preakness in Baltimore May 20 as the solid favorite in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

“We came into the Derby with a much better horse,” Velasquez said. “As soon as he got on the backside he was going real comfortable. I was very happy with the way he was running. I said to myself that they were going to have to go really fast to beat him.”

They couldn’t go that fast. None of them.

Not Classic Empire. He was the morning line favorite, but he had to rally from 12th to finish fourth. Not Corncrake. He was the only colt who had won three races at Churchill Downs. On Saturday, he finished eighth.

Not Irish Way Cry. He was the winner of the Wood Memorial as well as the pick of many handicappers. Irish War Cry failed to close, dropping back from third to 10th over the last half-mile.

“The winner was too good,” said Ian Wilkes, who trains McCraken.

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