LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Todd Pletcher knows the narrative all too well, even if he rarely bothers to refute it.
Despite winning a record seven Eclipse Awards for Top Trainer and ranking as the leading purse winner in history at age 49, Pletcher is the guy who’s saddled almost 50 horses for the Kentucky Derby and won just once.
Make that twice.
Because on Saturday, Always Dreaming, a horse who’d never even run in a stakes race before the start of April, swept over a rain-soaked track to win the 143rd Derby before an announced 158,070 at Churchill Downs.
Looking at Lee finished second and Battle of Midway was third.
But they were no match for Always Dreaming, who pulled away down the stretch for the victory. A 9-2 co-favorite with Irish War Cry, Always Dreaming paid $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80. Looking at Lee, with 33-1 odds, paid $26.60 and $15.20. Battle of Midway, at 40-1, paid $20.80.
Starting from the No. 5 post position, Always Dreaming had become a bettors’ favorite based on his stellar performance in the April 1 Florida Derby and his strong workouts in the wake of that victory. But he also faced doubts because of his testy behavior during training at Churchill Downs.
This Derby could not hold on to a favorite.
Classic Empire was the original choice coming off a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but he delivered a clunker in his first race of the year and then missed five weeks of training because he was injured, refused to train or both.
Then Irish War Cry staggered to an inexplicable seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.
Next up was Bob Baffert-trained Mastery, who won the San Felipe Stakes in brilliant fashion, then fractured his leg before he could even make it off the track. After that, the booby prize fell to McCraken, who couldn’t get past 31-1 shot Irap in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Finally, the whole narrative swung back to the beginning, with Classic Empire — his mental and physical woes seemingly behind him — starting as the morning-line favorite. Even then, bettors rejected the choice, pushing Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry above him in the pre-race odds at 9-2.
The rain, which began falling Thursday and continued most of the time through early Saturday afternoon, added another element of uncertainty.
Baffert, who left town after he won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, dubbed it the “I don’t know Derby.”