A few seasons ago, it was California Chrome and the DAP that rocked the American Kentucky Derby world in one of the most improbable Derby back stories.
This time around, the back stories of the 1-1/4 miles Derby, run exclusively for three-year-olds, were just as luscious:
— Venezuela’s leading trainer, Antion Sano, twice kidnapped in his home country for his horse racing stables’ fortunes, left Venezuela and started over from scratch in the USA, acquiring Gunnevera for $15,000. The horse earned an unlikely Derby spot in the exclusive field of 20.
— Seven-time Trainer of the Year Todd Pletcher, having captured one Derby crown from 45 entries, entered his usual numbers to Run for the Roses, but this time he had the last minute favorite, Always Dreaming, winner of the Florida Derby, and the favorite had won the Derby over the last four years.
— Patch, one of three Pletcher entries, made the Derby field without the benefit of two eyes. His left orb was removed a year ago when a severe infection was successfully halted to save his life.
— Bob Baffert, meanwhile, had no entries in a dry year, after having the Derby favorite in the field for… years! No problem. He won the Kentucky Oaks (the Derby version for three-year-old fillies) the day before with Abel Tasman, who charged from last to first under veteran jockey Mike Smith.
— Always Dreaming was sired by Bodemeister, a Baffert Derby favorite in 2012. Bodemeister finished second that year.
— Trainer Mark Casse, who years before owned a house one door down from the Churchill Downs track, where the Derby is run, took on his son, Norman, as an assistant. The two had been separated for many years after Mark’s divorce from Norman’s mother.
— Weatherman Jim Cantore, who’s “thunder snow romp” was rebroadcast for a whole Winter season, picked — ready? — Thunder Snow to win the Derby! But Thunder Snow didn’t like the sloppy track and on-and-off-rainy day, apparently preferring snow, as he bucked just out of the gate and made it known that he was done for the day.
— Jockey Rajiv Maragh, six months removed from a 16-month rehabilitation following massive injuries from a track spill, gained a Derby mount when trainer Graham Motion found himself needing a jockey for Irish War Cry, one of the early favorites to win the race.
— In the end, all-time leading money winner among jockeys, John Velazquez, and Pletcher, teamed for the Derby win. Although having worked together for many years, it marked the first time the duo crossed the Derby finish line ahead of the pack together, and the dream came true. Pletcher, by the way, tied his mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, this year for most career Derby entries at 48.
The dark brown colt Always Dreaming led the field early, then brightened the day in a 2-3/4 lengths victory that included a powerful, kick-away stretch run and a fourth straight racing triumph.
Here’s the rest of the finishing field:
(2) Lookin at Lee; (3) Battle of Midway; (4) Classic Empire; (5) Practical Joke; (6) Tapwrit (Pletcher’s third entry); (7) Gunnevera; (8) McCraken; (9) Gormley; (10) Irish War Cry; (11) Hence; (12) Untrapped; (13) Girvin; (14) Patch; (15) J Boys Echo; (16) Sonneteer; (17) Fast and Accurate; (18) Irap; (19) State of Honor.
Photo from the personal and copyrighted collection of Barbara Anne Helberg