This column is for me and couple of guys from Brooklyn. If anyone wishes to relive it with us you can continue to the reprint of my 2017 Derby recap below.
This will always be known as the year the Kentucky Derby went silent…at least for the next four months. But in silence comes thoughts, and for some reason this morning I thought of a cold wintry day this past February and being at Bill Johnson and his family’s Stonegate Stables in Fort Edward, N.Y. near Saratoga. Joan and I were there with our close friends Avi and Rhoda Freedberg to see their mares and newborn foals. There was snow on the ground and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) seemed a long way off. Little did we know how long.
We saw their prized mare, the stakes-winning Flattery Will Get You, and I was thrilled to hear she was approximately six weeks away from dropping a foal by Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming.
On April 4 (my birthday), Flattery gave birth to a filly. Most people don’t talk much of Always Dreaming these days, mainly because his career was badly compromised by severe stomach ulcers. Although they eventually cleared he was never the same brilliant horse we saw on the first Saturday in May and in his runaway victory in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1).
But up until then, he showed as much promise as any Kentucky Derby winner I have seen in recent years. And boy was he beautiful. As I wrote in the March 28 Derby Dozen after a slow allowance victory that went virtually unnoticed: “He seems to just glide over the ground with smooth effortless strides and has the look of a classy horse who is extremely responsive to what the rider asks of him. You want him to relax and go along on cruise control and he’ll just prick his ears and lope along. You want him to get down to business and run and he’ll pin his ears and step on the gas. He has a commanding presence about him and despite still being under wraps around the far turn and well into the stretch in his allowance win, he still was able to run that quarter in :24 1/5, followed by a :12 1/5 final eighth. When John Velazquez finally started pushing on him in deep stretch he quickly put it in another gear, leveled off, and came home his final sixteenth in just about :06 flat. Yes, a horse going that slow early is supposed to come home fast, but most horses can’t go :24 1/5 from the three-eighths pole to the eighth pole while in a common gallop. He then galloped out strongly, and I caught him going out the mile and a quarter in 2:07 1/5, which on that dead track no doubt put a lot of bottom in him. I go by the eye test with this colt and he just does things like an exceptional horse.” (In his next start, he would romp in the Florida Derby, missing Arrogate’s track record by three-fifths of a second).
So, with thoughts of Always Dreaming swirling around in my head as we approach the eve of what would have been Kentucky Derby Day, I decided to journey back to the 2017 Run for the Roses with a side trip back to my old Brooklyn neighborhood and retell the story of a horse who could have been one of the ones and the two men who were “always dreaming” from the time they were kids growing up in Williamsburg. As I said, this one is for me, and for the promise of Avi and Rhoda’s new filly, and for Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola to relive. Read on if you wish to join us once again. For now it is goodbye My Old Kentucky Home and hello My Old Brooklyn Home.
Derby Recap: Johnny on the Pony
Looking back, Brooklyn in the 1950s and ‘60s was a concrete and asphalt Wonderland, a constant whirlwind of activity, a time when sports were born of the imagination, not just on the ball fields and basketball courts. The streets were the arena where stickball, punchball, Johnny on the pony, kick the can, ring-a-levio, and stoopball ruled, and where a kid's place in the pecking order depended on how many sewers he could punch or hit a Spauldeen or Pensy Pinky rubber ball with a broomstick.
You dashed around the bases in your PF Flyers or Keds sneakers, pretending to be Jackie Robinson. The game would go on until one of the kids' mothers came out the front door or poked her head out the apartment window and yelled for her son to come in for dinner. After about a hundred replies of "one second," the screaming turned into threats of punishment and only then would the game finally end. Later that evening, post-game celebrations were partaking in egg creams and black and whites at the corner candy store and spending the quarter you saved up on five packs of baseball cards.
"When you hit a ball three sewers you're a legend in the neighborhood," Anthony Bonomo said. "That never goes away. It becomes folklore. You can hit a ball a sewer and a half and it becomes nine sewers."
Every kid's dream was to play for the Dodgers in Ebbetts Field or later, after they and the Giants left, the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. When you went up to hit, gripping that broomstick or clenching your fist, ready to clobber that poor Pensy Pinky, you took on the persona of Duke Snider or Gil Hodges or Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris or Willie Mays. They were all gods to us.
And then, just like that, we all grew up and learned there was life outside the streets of Brooklyn, and we all went out in the world, but we never forgot those childhood dreams. Some, like buddies Anthony Bonomo and Vinnie Viola (every neighborhood in Brooklyn had an Anthony and a Vinnie), turned their attention to the racetrack to get their action. Some would go to the brand spanking new Aqueduct, the track of the future, often sneaking in, while others would head to Roosevelt or Yonkers Raceway at night for the jugheads.
Bonomo and Viola came from humble hard-working families. Their fathers were a brick layer and a truck driver, respectively. Although both kids went out into the world and made their fortunes, they never abandoned their childhood memories and their dreams. They knew they would never patrol centerfield at Yankee Stadium or Shea Stadium, but those 1960s memories of their days at Aqueduct and of Kelso, Buckpasser, Dr. Fager, and Damascus inspired them to fulfill their early dreams, not by becoming a sports hero, but owning one. From the days of rushing into Aqueduct to make the daily double, they could now envision themselves standing in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May with Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays all rolled up into one equine package of speed, power and grace. And he would be all theirs. This actually was a dream that could come true if the racing gods smiled down on them.
And they would share the glory with family and friends, and like in the movie Somebody Up There Likes Me, when newly crowned Middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, played by Paul Newman, was paraded through the old neighborhood with thousands lining the streets cheering him and his family and friends on, all of Williamsburg, Brooklyn would celebrate in their victory, which would conclude at Bamonte's restaurant on Withers Street for some linguini and white clam sauce.
And so it was that the dreams of two Italian kids from Brooklyn came true on a May afternoon that was soaked with rain at times and drenched in sunshine at others. When Bonomo's wife MaryEllen came up with the name Always Dreaming for a young Bodemeister colt that they purchased at the Keeneland September yearling sale for $350,000, she was engraving not only a horse's name, but her husband and his buddy's dream, into the history books. Willie, Mickey, and The Duke may have won the World Series, but they had won the Kentucky Derby. They had tread on the same hallowed ground as their childhood heroes.
Several days after Always Dreaming stormed on the Derby scene with a resounding victory in the Florida Derby, Bonomo said in near disbelief. "Pinch me, I'm dreaming."
But it wasn't about him alone. It was all about family and friends and sharing the glory. "What really makes this special is doing it with people you love," said Bonomo, who races under the name Brooklyn Boyz Stable and had his horses with trainer Dominick Schettino. "My whole family is really into horse racing and all the things that go with it, and in today's world anytime you find something that brings your family together you have to grasp it and hold on to it. What makes it even more special is sharing it with friends and partners. Recently we took in West Point Thoroughbreds and Anthony Manganaro's Siena Farm. For all of us and friends and family to celebrate like we did Saturday was special."
He had no idea at the time what special was and the almost surreal jubilation that would overwhelm him in five weeks. And he knew whatever success awaited him in racing, he would return to his roots and share it with the world in which he grew up.
"Brooklyn is Brooklyn no matter what side of Brooklyn you come from," Bonomo said. "It's all about the people there. They're special. Vinnie and I have been friends from the time I was able to talk. That's what makes it special. We all liked horse racing and always dreamed of having our own horse. We used to sneak into the track at Aqueduct to make a $2 bet.
"My wife also grew up in Brooklyn. That's what makes it fun. You can rib someone and they give it right back to you. You can attain any title you want in life but you never leave what you are. Where we are now is rarified air and we're lucky to breathe some of it. To walk on that track with my family and Vinnie and his family and Anthony is the lifelong dream of a kid who used to play stickball in the street and all those crazy games. It actually was my wife's idea to get involved in racing. She used to go to the track with her late father, who never had the opportunity to share in all this, but when Always Dreaming crossed the finish line he was on the back of that horse."
And he surely was still on him when the colt bounded away from the field and cruised over the finish line at Churchill Downs five weeks later.
Bonomo had become fully entrenched in the Sport of Kings thanks to MaryEllen, who raced under the name MeB Racing, even running one of the favorites in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. The final piece of this union came together when Viola decided to get back into racing in 2011, purchasing his first horse that August in Saratoga. He contacted his friend Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, like him a West Point graduate, and they got together to discuss plans. Finley said he could see the sparkle in Viola's eye. He sold his interest in the New Jersey Nets basketball team and dove head first back into racing under the name St. Elias and also in his wife Teresa's name.
When Always Dreaming won a mile and an eighth allowance at Gulfstream Park in extremely slow time, Finley and West Point joined the party as minority owners. "Funny, it was that slow race that really caused me to pull the trigger," Finley said. "I figured if a very fast horse like Always Dreaming can go that slow, he must have a great mind and constitution. Most people just looked at it as a slow race, but it clinched the deal for me."
Bonomo is just happy to be able to share all this with Viola. "Vinnie is a successful guy, but he is who he was when he was 9 years old. Nothing has changed about that man. Like he was at 9, his heart is bigger than his body. His wife also came from the neighborhood. When we get together it's not about horses, it's a reunion. We still go back to Bamonte's restaurant in the old neighborhood. I got calls telling me on Saturday (after the Florida Derby) the poor patrons didn't get their food. The waiters were all watching the race. We have a street festival there from our parish. That's what makes it so special. You feel like the whole neighborhood is on your back and on that horse's back. When the horse wins the whole neighborhood wins. So we all win and we share the ups together and we share the downs. That's what's making this ride so special."
Despite all his success, Viola said, other than the birth of his children and meeting his wife, winning the Kentucky Derby was the greatest feeling he's ever had.
The final leg of their journey to Kentucky began at Bamonte's when they took jockey John Velazquez there a week before the Derby. What better place to start the good karma leading up to the Derby. While they were there, Velazquez, much to everyone's surprise, was presented with a Catholic scapular, blessed by Monsignor Jamie Gigantiello, which Velazquez wore in the Derby.
And you can bet it will end at Bamonte's. "When it's over we'll be back at Bamonte's," Bonomo said. "The next day, win lose or draw, you're right back to where you were. They remember when you were 14, and you didn't do something right and the old timers would remind you and smack you on the back of your head and put you right back to where you belong."
For Bonomo and Viola, this story began at the Keeneland yearling sale, where Bonomo had bloodstock agents Steve Young and Chris Brothers looking for horses to put on their short list. Both of them had Hip 45 on their list, and it was Young who signed the sales slip after Bonomo's son, Anthony Jr., went over budget to purchase him.
"Steve and I knew we were working together but we never spoke during the sales," Brothers said. "We weren't trying to come up with a list together. It just so happened that we had a few horses of the same horses on our short list. As Hip 45, he was the first one on the list. I know Steve had him high on his list and he was high on mine as well. He stood out to me. He was a very mature, good size horse, but extremely athletic as well. Everything just kind of matched.
"I'm a big first impression guy when it comes to horses. He was one of those horses that came walking out of the barn, and if you weren't looking at him you'd want to go look at him. He catches your eye real fast. I don't know if it was the look about him or something they just give off that takes your breath away. He just floats over the ground. As a yearling, he was very light-footed for a bigger horse."
But what Brothers remembers most is the colt's demeanor and how he coped with things around him.
"He was in a barn area where the road going to the loading chute was about 30 feet above the barn, so there's a walkway and a road that always has horse trailers going by, and he was right there in front of that. I remember there were noises and all kinds of activity constantly and other horses were spooking and rearing up, and he was like bomb proof. He just stood around looking at them as if, ‘What's going on here?' Eighty percent of a horse's ability on the track is his mind, to be able to stand things like that and know what's going on and what he's supposed to do. His mind is his greatest ability. It's scary to be around him, he's so smart.
"You spend this kind of money for these people and you want to do well for them. They entrust in us to do what we do, and what we do is gamble; it's a crap shoot really. When they turn out like this you feel good because Anthony and Vinnie are two of the best people and to pick the right one and see them have a horse like this when they have trust in you is very gratifying. I'm also a native New Yorker and being from the City and these guys being from the City, knowing certain areas we kind of grew up around, it's cool. I'm a Breezy Point guy and hung out in Marine Park (in Brooklyn) all the time."
Always Dreaming was sent to Schettino, arriving at his Belmont Park barn in early April from J.J. Crupi's New Castle Farm, where he was broke. Working for Schettino was Bonomo's nephew Matty, a high school student who would work at the barn following classes and would eventually start working full time in the summers until he went off to college. Matty, whose father had horses with Dennis Brida, had been around the track his entire life, spending every summer at Saratoga.
As soon as his uncle began getting horses, Matty would always go to the barn and began picking up little things and learning everything he could about the horses.
He will never forget the day the 2-year-olds arrived, and he saw this one colt walk off the van.
"My uncle told me we had an extremely strong 2-year-old class coming up," said Matty, who knows good horses having worked with his uncle's and Viola's 2015 Champagne Stakes winner Greenpointcrusader, named after their Pop Warner football team the Greenpoint Crusaders . "But the minute Always Dreaming walked off the van he had this presence about him. You knew he was a classy horse. He was very athletic looking. He was a little leggy, so the potential for him to grow into his frame and continue to grow was what really made me drawn to him. He had a really nice personality and was a fun horse to be around, but when you snapped on the shank or put the saddle on him his focus immediately turned to all business. He knew what that meant and what he was supposed to do.
Bonomo recalls, "Matty was telling us since he made his 2-year-old debut that this horse was special. He said this horse is going to win the Kentucky Derby. From his lips to God's ears. He's not just some young kid who loves horses. He knows a lot about them and follows pedigrees, how they look and work."
Matty added, "He ran at Belmont, finishing a close third, and after we went up to Saratoga, he worked a half one morning in :46 4/5 in hand. When the exercise rider came back he told me, ‘This is a freak.' He had a look of sheer class about him. He had that eye and just the look of a great horse. After he finished second by a neck in 1:09 4/5, they transferred the horses to Todd (Pletcher) in mid August. Ultimately, it was a business decision. Dom did a great job with all the horses we gave him..
"I went to the Florida Derby, and it was a crazy scene, not just the race, but the week leading up to it. It wasn't easy to watch when Johnny stepped on the brakes going into the first turn. But when I saw Johnny peaking back at the quarter pole I knew we had it. When he was drawing away in the final sixteenth I stopped watching the race and looked at everyone else, just wanting to take it all in, and my uncle was doing jumping jacks screaming at the top of his lungs and my cousin Anthony Jr. leaped into the arms of his friend. It was unbelievable."
And then five weeks later, the dream became a reality, as Always Dreaming stamped his name into Derby legend. Bonomo and Viola had hit a two-out grand slam to win the World Series. They had pitched a perfect game. They had caught the winning touchdown pass in the final seconds of the championship game. Most important they were back in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and really had hit that Spauldeen nine sewers. They had become part of folklore.