Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola have known each other from their childhood days growing up in Brooklyn.
Now the two New Yorkers are headed to Kentucky with a horse that came out smelling like roses on Saturday.
Always Dreaming is the colt’s name, and he won the Florida Derby.
“It’s magical,” Bonomo said. “I don’t know anyone who’s been in the horse business who doesn’t dream of this. So the name that my wife picked out — Always Dreaming — is what you have to do every day, especially in this business.”
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The dream became a little closer to reality at Gulfstream Park when, as the sun was beginning to set, Always Dreaming crushed the field, roaring to a five-length victory, an impressive performance that should make him one of the favorites for Kentucky Derby on May 6.
Bonomo said their friends in Brooklyn were probably going bonkers.
“I’m sure there’s a restaurant there right now, where all of our friends stay and watch the races, and I can guarantee you Vinnie’s getting a big bar bill next week because all the drinks are on him now,” Bonomo said to laughter.
Viola, the owner of the Florida Panthers, is sitting in a good spot heading into the Run for the Roses five weeks from now. In addition to Always Dreaming, which he owns in partnership with Bonomo, he also owns another top contender, Battalion Runner.
Battalion Runner was entered in the Florida Derby as what trainer Todd Pletcher said was an “insurance policy.”
But he was scratched and is expected to race in next week’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, another major prep for the Kentucky Derby.
Saturday belonged to Always Dreaming.
Could the lightly raced horse take down nine rivals, including even-money favorite Gunnevera, who probably had the entire country of Venezuela rooting for him?
In the end, it was no contest.
Always Dreaming and jockey John Velazquez settled behind early front-runner Three Rules and blew past in the stretch, crossing under the wire all alone.
It was five lengths back to State of Honor, and another 1 1/2 lengths to third-place finisher Gunnevera, who dropped back to last and and failed to mount his patented stretch kick.
“I didn’t have it today,” said Gunnevera’s jockey, Javier Castellano. “He never grabbed the bit. He never pulled like he always used to.”
Venezuelan-born trainer Antonio Sano, while disappointed with the outcome, said he still intends to send the horse to the Kentucky Derby.
“He finished strong,” Sano said of Saturday’s race. “But the horses in front weren’t stopping.”
Always Dreaming had the accelerator going, that’s for sure.
Velazquez said he never felt threatened. When Velazquez turned his head at the quarter pole and didn’t spot Gunnevera, he knew the race was all his.
“If he’s coming,” Velazquez thought, “he’s going to have to run really hard.”
Always Dreaming is a late bloomer.
He raced just twice last year as a juvenile, losing both times, before coming south to Florida for the winter and joining the formidable stable of Pletcher.
In January, Pletcher sent him to Tampa Bay Downs, where he rolled to an easy 11-length win. Next came an allowance race at Gulfstream on March 4 — an undercard race to the Fountain of Youth Stakes that was won by Gunnevera.
Pletcher said he considered the Fountain of Youth for Always Dreaming but chose an easier spot.
“Even though we felt like the Fountain of Youth is a race that he fit in, we felt like he needed a little more foundation, a little more education, and we had a bigger goal later on,” Pletcher said.
Always Dreaming won the allowance by four lengths, setting him up for Saturday’s Florida Derby score. How impressive was Always Dreaming’s victory?
He won in a time of 1:47 2/5, the fastest Florida Derby time at the new Gulfstream, which opened in 2005.
But counting the old track, it was the fastest Florida Derby since Alydar won in 1:47 in 1978.
Now he moves on to Kentucky and the big Derby.
“And so a kid from Brooklyn whose real experience with horses was watching them pull fruit cars now gets to go to Kentucky and one of the biggest races with people you love,” Bonomo said. “That’s what it’s really about.”