Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 7, 2017

Against The Odds, Derby Dreams Come True

What were the odds? As displayed on the two big tote boards in the Churchill Downs infield, they were 9-2 when the starting gate clanged open and co-favorite Always Dreaming sprang into action along with nineteen other hopefuls, all ten furlongs from horse racing glory. But those numbers reflected only the cumulative hunches of countless bettors who contributed to the parimutuel pool, not just in Louisville but all around the world. Long before the first wager on the 2017 Kentucky Derby was placed, far greater odds had to be overcome.

There are roughly 22,500 thoroughbreds born in the United States each year and as many as four times that number around the rest of the globe; though few international horses make their way to the Kentucky oval before the old twin spires on the first Saturday in May. Each foal begins life on wobbly legs, but soon each finds his or her footing and begins the process of learning to be a race horse.

Fewer than half will race as three-year old’s. Equibase Company LLC, the industry-owned database of North American horse racing, lists just over 9,000 3-year old thoroughbreds in its records. Nearly thirty percent have winnings of less than $1,000 this year, with several hundred having yet to win a dime. The sport has been in decline for years. Many tracks have closed and thousands of jobs have been lost. But there are still those who seek to make a living riding or training race horses. There are 1,095 jockeys in the Equibase database. But calling oneself a jockey is no guarantee of success. More than a quarter of those listed have yet to ride a winner in 2017. There are more trainers, though the failure rate is even higher than among jockeys. The statistical repository lists more than 3,900 thoroughbred trainers, but more than four in ten haven’t saddled a single winning horse so far this year.

Whether equine or human, horse racing is a hard game, with failure and defeat far more likely outcomes than success and victory. From all those thousands of horses, jockeys and trainers, just twenty entrants with twenty riders were loaded into the Churchill Downs starting gate as afternoon drifted toward evening on Saturday. With three trainers having multiple entries, only fifteen men waited anxiously in the stands for the race to begin.

The dark bay colt in gate number five was an unlikely betting favorite. He had raced just twice as a 2-year old, last July at Belmont Park and in August at Saratoga. Both times he had chased his competition across the wire. Always Dreaming didn’t break his maiden until January of this year when he won at Tampa Bay Downs. Not since Brokers Tip in 1933 had the Derby been won by a horse who failed to record a victory in his 2-year old campaign. The lightly raced colt also came to Kentucky with just a single graded stakes race on his resume. Not until last month’s Florida Derby did Always Dreaming square off against the kind of competition he was about to face.

Then when he arrived at Churchill Downs Always Dreaming proved fractious. He seemed overly keyed up, bucking and bolting on his way to exercise runs, necessitating a change in both equipment and ultimately his exercise rider. During the week leading up to the race some back stretch observers wondered aloud whether he would be able to relax come Saturday.

In the saddle atop Always Dreaming was John R. Velazquez. The 45-year old began his career in his native Puerto Rico while still a teenager. He soon came north and won his first graded stakes race before his 20th birthday. In 1996, he won his first riding title at Aqueduct, and two years later began a string of five straight years as the top jockey at Saratoga. Inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, Velazquez has won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading jockey twice, and finished in the top ten in earnings every year since 2001. In recent years, he’s surpassed 5,000 victories and become the all-time leading money winner among all jockeys with lifetime earnings of more than $300 million.

Yet for all his success Velazquez’s record in the Triple Crown races has been pedestrian. It was 2007 before he rode to victory in any of America’s three best known races, winning the Belmont Stakes aboard the filly Rags to Riches. He got the mount from Todd Pletcher, a trainer with whom Velazquez has had a long and mutually profitable relationship. Like the jockey, Pletcher rose through the ranks of trainers at New York’s three tracks. Their two careers paralleled one another, and Pletcher, who has been the country’s top trainer seven times, frequently turned to Velazquez as his rider of choice in big races.

But in the biggest race of all they had both known mostly disappointment. Pletcher had trained just one Derby winner, the 2010 champion Super Saver. Similarly, Velazquez had crossed the wire in first place just once in the Run for the Roses, aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011. And despite all their collaboration, it was Calvin Borel riding Super Saver for Pletcher, and Velazquez’s Derby winner was trained by H. Graham Motion.

That was until Saturday, when horse, jockey and trainer overcame all the odds working against them. History was forgotten. A week of poor training was rendered meaningless. Prior races that ended in bitter disappointment served not as a yoke but rather a springboard. Velazquez and Always Dreaming broke cleanly and moved quickly to the front of the twenty-horse mob. Always Dreaming stayed on or near the lead all the way down the back stretch, moved ahead around the final turn, broke clear of his pursuers at the top of the stretch and won by three lengths over the longshot Lookin At Lee.

What are the odds that Always Dreaming will win the Triple Crown? As even casual racing fans know, they are extraordinarily long. But as the racing world moves to Pimlico and the Preakness, only one thing is certain. From thousands of horses, jockeys and trainers, down to the handful who went to the gate on Saturday, now there are just three. For this year’s Triple Crown, only Velazquez, Pletcher and their aptly named colt still have the right to dream.

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