In the past 25 years, no prep race has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than the Florida Derby. Seven out of the last twenty-five to be exact. Last year’s Florida Derby winner Nyquist went on to win the Run for the Roses. This year’s Florida Derby winner, Always Dreaming, appears to be a very strong candidate to duplicate that feat.
The dark bay colt was purchased for $350,000 in the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling sale. He is co-owned in a partnership that consists of Jersey Boyz Stable, Teresa Viola Racing Stable, St. Elias Stable, MeB Racing Stables, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds.
How did West Point Thoroughbreds get involved in partnership deal? West Point President and CEO Terry Finley explains: “Well, Always Dreaming beat a nice West Point colt named Fire for Effect in that March allowance race. There was something about him that struck my fancy and I knew one of his owners was very high on the colt. Vinnie Viola of St. Elias Stables and I are both graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point and met in the 1990s at a Thoroughbred auction. We share an intense passion for horse racing, and that’s ultimately what led us to become partners in the early ‘90s. We joined up again in 2012 and campaigned successful graded stakes horses Freedom Child and Ring Weekend. I am very grateful to Teresa and Vinnie for affording us the opportunity to purchase a minority interest in this colt when we did before the Florida Derby.”
Always Dreaming is trained by Todd Pletcher. Although Pletcher has had a lot of recent success with One Liner winning the Southwest Stakes, Tapwrit winning the Tampa Bay Derby and Malagacy taking the Rebel Stakes, a great many respected national handicappers didn’t see this result coming in the Florida Derby.
Why? Always Dreaming’s Beyer Speed Figures were mediocre (59, 88, 85, 71) and trending downward as he stretched out from 6 furlongs. His previous start to the Florida Derby came in a nine-furlong allowance optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park on March 4. He wired the field that day, but his time of 1:53 was very pedestrian.
Terry Finley explained his recent form: “The horse was training exceptionally well after that allowance win. Todd [Pletcher] has been very deliberate in bringing this colt along. He found a good spot at Tampa to break his maiden. Then, rather than throwing him in the deep end of the pool in a stake race right after, he spotted him in a two-turn nine furlong allowance race over the Gulfstream Park oval. Thus, by design, he wasn’t supposed to dazzle in the March fourth race. So he’s peaking at the right time and the evidence of his blossoming was on full display in the Florida Derby.”
What was Always Dreaming’s winning time? 1:47.47 — the sixth-fastest Florida Derby time since it was inaugurated in 1952. Ponder that time for a minute. Always Dreaming recorded the fastest Florida Derby time since Alydar’s 1:47-flat in 1978. And it was faster than two prominent Florida Derby winners who went on to win the Kentucky Derby: Spectacular Bid (1:48.80 in 1979) and Big Brown (1:48.16 in 2008).
More importantly, it’s also the fastest nine-furlong final prep race time of any of the past eighteen Kentucky Derby winners. Of recent Derby winners, 2014 champ California Chrome produced a time of 1:47.57 in the Santa Anita Derby. Similar to Always Dreaming, California Chrome was inconsistent and mediocre as a two-year-old before “the light came on” and he started winning races.
Surprisingly, Always Dreaming only received a 97 Beyer Speed Figure for his Florida Derby performance. I expect this figure might be adjusted upward later. Why? Always Dreaming’s TimeformUS speed rating for the Florida Derby was 123, which is tied for fourth-best among this season’s Derby prep races behind Mastery’s 127 in the San Felipe Stakes, Classic Empire’s 125 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and One Liner’s 124 in the Southwest Stakes. Not This Time had a 123 rating for his second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Overall, I like Always Dreaming’s pedigree. He has Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Northern Dancer (twice) on his sire’s side and Norther Dancer on his dam’s side. If you read my Derby profile on Malagacy, the last four Kentucky Derby winners had Secretariat on at least one side of their pedigree — an unusual new trend.
Always Dreaming’s sire was Bodemeister, who, in 2012, won the Arkansas Derby and had second-place finishes in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Bodemeister was a very promising colt who earned $1.3 million in 6 career starts before unfortunately being forced to be retired due to nerve damage in his shoulder. Bodemeister’s sire (Always Dreaming’s grandsire) was Empire Maker, who finished second in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. He won three Grade 1 races that year: the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial and the Belmont Stakes.
Always Dreaming’s dam, Above Perfection, won seven of her career ten starts, including the Grade 3 Las Flores Handicap in 2002. Her sire, In Excess, was an Irish-bred horse who won four Grade 1 races as a four-year-old yn the US in 1991: the Met Mile, the Suburban Handicap, the Whitney Handicap and Woodward Stakes.
The Bottom Line
Many might be skeptical of a colt after a great one-off performance. However, Always Dreaming’s pedigree suggests that he will like the 10-furlong distance, as both his sire and grandsire finished second in the Kentucky Derby. His stalking-the-pace running style and late speed will bode well in the Derby. I will take a wait-and-see approach after all the final Derby prep races have been run, but, right now, Always Dreaming is at the top of my Kentucky Derby contender list. And at the minimum, he’s going into my Derby trifecta bets.