Second Chance at a Dream

Sometimes, names of Thoroughbreds are implanted in our psyche as if they will remain embedded there forever. It happens every year on the first Saturday in May. But in some cases those names, for whatever reason, turn out to be fleeting and soon fade from consciousness.

It was nine months ago, following a contentious Kentucky Derby trail, that it seemed the name Always Dreaming would be rolling off our tongues for years to come. At least we had the Triple Crown and beyond to look forward to, although the length of his racing career was questionable, as is the case with all 3-year-old superstars. It doesn't take long for breeding farms to attach themselves to a hotshot 3-year-old like a barnacle to a ship, getting into the fray early, usually with the intention of securing an early retirement. But no one thinks of such things during the frenzy that is the Kentucky Derby trail. It's all about now.

So, when Always Dreaming followed up his brilliant victory in the Florida Derby with an equally convincing score in the Kentucky Derby, it looked as if a new star was born with an unlimited future. We at least would be able to enjoy him through the end of the year, as we did with American Pharoah.

Always Dreaming went into the Preakness, now with the Triple Crown dreams of his owners, which consisted of Brooklyn Boyz Stable, Teresa Viola, St Elias Stable, MeB Racing, Siena Farm and West Point Thoroughbreds. Heading the ownership were the families of Anthony Bonomo of Brooklyn Boyz, his wife Mary Ellen, and Anthony's childhood buddy from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Vinnie Viola, and his wife Teresa.

There also was the emotional story of jockey Johnny Velazquez and his agent Angel Cordero Jr., who brought the young rider to America from Puerto Rico and pretty much adopted him as he would a son. It was that special relationship and Cordero's quest to make Velazquez, who didn't speak English when he arrived, a champion jockey and one of the greatest ever, that prevented Cordero from giving up on life after his wife Marjorie was killed by a hit and run driver. That quest drove him even harder, hooking him up with Todd Pletcher, and now they finally reached the pinnacle, with Velazquez and Pletcher teaming up to win the Kentucky Derby together after so many attempts.

So, it looked as if this story had everything, a fast, exciting horse who moved with both grace and power, a lifelong friendship that led two Italian kids from Brooklyn to fame and fortune, and the bonding of two souls who fed upon each other for sustenance in time of need and their relentless quest to climb the sport's highest peaks.

But even the most appealing racing scripts often go unfinished or are tossed in the trash can. Happy endings and reality often do not meld in Thoroughbred racing. And so it was that the dream of Always Dreaming ended abruptly in Baltimore, as the colt inexplicably faded badly to finish eighth, beaten nearly 14 lengths, as everyone watching in disbelief.

That ended the Triple Crown and the dream, at least for the time being. Always Dreaming returned seeking redemption in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, and although he ran a respectable race to finish third, showing some willingness to fight back in the stretch, he was beaten more than five lengths, despite appearing to be in complete control of the race on the front end, setting slow fractions.

Would he improve in the Travers Stakes, reigniting the dream, or were we looking at a shell of what once appeared to be an exciting bona fide superstar? The Travers answered that question with cruel bluntness, as Always Dreaming faded once again, this time finishing ninth, beaten 18 1/2 lengths. This time, the dream looked over for good. It was time to wake up from what had turned into an unexplained nightmare and consider sending the colt off to stud with a severely damaged reputation.

With new stars emerging, like the late-developing 3-year-old West Coast and a rejuvenated 4-year-old, Gun Runner, and America trying to get over the shocking defeats of the seemingly invincible Arrogate, the name of Always Dreaming seemed to be fading from public consciousness, his reputation tattered beyond repair.

Shortly after the Travers debacle, it was was announced that WinStar Farm had entered into an agreement to acquire Always Dreaming's 2017 breeding rights. They now had to make the best of a bad situation from a marketing standpoint - selling a stallion who had gone completely off form for no known reason.

They did the best they could, ignoring the Travers and boasting the colt's other traits.

"We are excited to add another potentially breed-shaping stallion from the dominant Unbridled line, which has proven to be today's preeminent classic sire line," said Elliott Walden, WinStar President & CEO. "Always Dreaming has all three things we look for: Looks, he was a $350,000 yearling; Pedigree, he is out of a fast, grade 1-level race mare and is a half to a grade 1 winner; and Performance, he's a brilliantly fast winner of two prestigious grade 1 races this year, including the race everyone wants to win - the (Kentucky) Derby. He represents four straight generations of a sire line that finished first or second in the Kentucky Derby."

Now came the question, do they and the owners pull the plug and move on to the next phase of his career, with so many unanswered questions hanging over their head or was there even a remote hope of redeeming his reputation in the future following a freshening at the farm?

Always Dreaming, with career earnings of over $2.3 million, was shipped from Saratoga to WinStar early on a Monday morning to be freshened and to have a complete physical examination, after which a decision would be made whether or not to stand him for the 2018 breeding season.

It was that examination by Dr. Larry Bramlage of Rood & Riddle that apparently answered all the questions. Always Dreaming was found to be suffering from stomach ulcers, so severe that Dr. Steve Reed of Rood & Riddle said it was one of the worst cases of ulcers he has seen.

According to Pletcher, Always Dreaming's appetite was always good and he had been treated with Gastrogard all year, showing no symptoms of the ulcers. It was a shock to everyone at the barn.

By October, between the treatment and being turned out on the farm for a month, the ulcers were completely cleared, and now there was a fresh start to look forward to in 2018.

It is now almost four months later and Always Dreaming, on January 29, turned in his first breeze, going three furlongs in :37, moving along at an easy controlled clip.

The name that has faded from most people's minds has a second life. The Kentucky Derby winner is back, just as the sport's main star, Gun Runner, arrives as Three Chimneys Farm to embark on his new career. Yes, racing needs Always Dreaming; the Always Dreaming they cheered down the stretch at Churchill Downs and who thrilled them at Gulfstream Park.

We can start thinking about Brooklyn again, about more glory for John Velazquez and Angel Cordero, about the return of the Kentucky Derby winner. We can all start dreaming again.

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