Greg Cote

Bad season for hockey team, but Panthers’ owner Viola was all smiles at Florida Derby

Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola with jockey John R. Velazquez in the winners circle after Always Dreaming wins the 66th running of the Expressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola with jockey John R. Velazquez in the winners circle after Always Dreaming wins the 66th running of the Expressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach on Saturday, April 1, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Vinnie Viola has had a tough year.

It got a little bit better on Saturday as dusk settled in on Gulfstream Park.

Viola owns the Florida Panthers hockey club, which is winding down its season as one of the biggest disappointments in the NHL, out of the playoffs after opening as -- by his players’ own estimation -- a Stanley Cup contender. Along the way he was nominated by President Donald Trump to be U.S. Secretary of the Army but had to withdraw over business conflicts.

Saturday, all he did was win. All he did was smile.

Saturday, his four-legged athlete performed a heck of a lot better than his two-legged players on skates have.

A horse Viola owns, the aptly named Always Dreaming, won the 66th running of the Florida Derby at Gulfstream to vault itself among favorites in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown season starting with the Kentucky Derby on May 6. The second betting favorite, Always Dreaming led throughout and held off a too-late charge by the heavy favorite Gunnevera, which finished third after State Of Honor.

Viola, 60, was asked if the Florida Derby triumph marking the emergence of his rising-star horse made up for the Panthers’ failures.

“No!” he answered a reporter quickly, but smiling. “Anything less than a Stanley Cup is nothing less than total failure. But thanks for bringing that up. Thanks for balancing my zen at this moment of glee.”

Viola’s championship-or-bust expectations for his hockey team now transfer to what he expects of Always Dreaming.

“If we do [in the Kentucky Derby] at least what we did today, I’ll be greatly disappointed,” he said.

Viola owns another horse, Battalion Runner, that was a healthy scratch from the Florida Derby and also will be among contenders at Churchill Downs.

The team behind him -- trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Johnny Velazquez -- is as good it gets in this sport.

Velazquez guided Always Dreaming expertly as Gunnevera waited so long to make his move that the jockey could barely see him in his rear view.

“I asked him to keep his mind on business,” Velazquez said of his 3-year-old. “Finally he got to relax in the backstretch.”

Viola’s love of horses was handed down from his father in his native New York, at tracks like Aqueduct and Belmont.

“I don’t know how he got me in,” Viola said, maybe half-kiddingly. “He used to quiz me on the odds...”

Viola co-owns Brooklyn Boyz Stables along with his childhood friend, Anthony Bonomo, who was at his elbow on the victors’ dais Saturday.

“The best thing for me,” said Viola, “is I’m sitting next to a guy that I grew up with since I was 6, 7, 8 years old and know from the old neighborhood.”

Said Bonomo: “It’s magical. The dream is to get a horse like this. And so a kid from Brooklyn whose real experience with horses was watching them pull fruit carts now gets to go to Kentucky and one of the biggest races with people you love. That’s what it’s really all about.”

Bonomo mentioned a neighborhood bar in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg where friends of his and Viola’s were surely watching the race and cheering its finish.

“I can guarantee you Vinnie is getting a big bar bill next week,” said Bonomo, “because all the drinks are on him now.”

Horse racing is not in robust health in general but still arises as the Sport of Kings when the races are big, like the Grade 1, $1 million Florida Derby. It is refreshing to see the horses as the main star of the horsetrack on occasion, when places like Gulfstream can become less about the racing than the casino and poker and restaurants and entertainment.

The crowd that packed Gulfstream Saturday came for one of the great annual events in South Florida sports, an annual institution since 1952.

As someone who makes his living covering Miami sports I liken it to a menu at a favorite restaurant. The Dolphins, Heat, Marlins, Hurricanes and Viola’s Panthers -- they are the meat and potatoes. But events like the Florida Derby are the specials.

Saturday reminded us that the best stories in sports deconstruct as intimate and personal.

A horse named Always Dreaming won a big race, led by a star trainer and a star jockey. Really, though, it was the story of a couple of childhood buddies from Brooklyn who grew up to share this day.

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