LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It was an up-and-down year for the 3-year-olds who were being steered toward the 143rd Kentucky Derby: There were injuries and upsets and even an overarching sense of malaise as a clear favorite failed to emerge.
But hope springs eternal at Churchill Downs, and for many, there is no better place to be than the Bluegrass State on the first Saturday in May.
And so the owners and the trainers of the 20 horses running in the $2 million Kentucky Derby, two years after American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown champion since 1978, were hoping to begin another history-making run.
In the end it was Always Dreaming, ridden by John Velazquez, who proved to be the best on a soggy Saturday at Churchill Downs, capturing the $1,635,800 first-place paycheck. He completed the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes 3.59 seconds over a sloppy track and returned $11.40 on a $2 bet to win. Lookin at Lee finished second, two and three-quarters lengths back, and Battle of Midway was third.
The victory was the second at the Derby for the trainer Todd Pletcher, who won in 2010 when Super Saver savored the slop, and for Velazquez, who won aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011.
“I thought we had a big shot when we turned for home,” said the usually stoic Pletcher, who acknowledged that he had some tears forming behind his sunglasses. “I think it’s even more special than the first one.”
Always Dreaming was sent off at 9-2 odds, making this the fifth straight year that a favorite won the Derby, the longest such stretch since the 1970s.
Always Dreaming is partly owned by the billionaire Wall Street trader Vincent Viola, a Brooklyn native and President Trump’s first choice to be the secretary of the Army. Viola, who withdrew from consideration after concluding it would be difficult to untangle himself from his business ties, is also the owner of the Florida Panthers. Perhaps appropriately, the Stanley Cup paid a visit to Always Dreaming at Barn 40 on Saturday morning.
“There’s no feeling like this,” Viola said after the race. He said that a trip to Aqueduct in 1965, when he was already a hockey fan, had stoked his interest in horse racing. “From that moment, I’ve been passionately attached to this sport,” he said.
Classic Empire, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion, who overcame injuries to win the Arkansas Derby in April, was the 4-1 morning-line favorite. Ridden by Julien Leparoux, Classic Empire had won twice at Churchill Downs, including a debut victory last year during Derby week, but he had been sidelined with foot and back problems. He finished fourth.
American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, who did not have a horse in the race, had said he would be watching from his “Grade I couch” in California, a day after he won the premier race for 3-year-old fillies, the Kentucky Oaks, with Abel Tasman.
Baffert is well versed in the wild swings of emotion that come with racing: Mastery, his 3-year-old star and a good bet to become the Triple Crown standout everyone was longing for, was found to have a broken ankle after his impressive victory in the San Felipe Stakes in March.
Baffert, who flew home before the Derby, said he had been most looking forward to making the hour-plus drive to visit American Pharoah at his new home in Versailles, Ky., at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud.
Another familiar face from American Pharoah’s victory, Victor Espinoza, was aboard Gormley, the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, and finished ninth. Espinoza won the Derby in 2014 with California Chrome.
The Wood Memorial winner, Irish War Cry, drew the dreaded No. 17 hole, from which no horse has ever won. The bad luck continued Saturday as he finished 10th.
Thunder Snow, the U.A.E. Derby winner, who was shipped in from Dubai, stumbled badly at the start and had to be pulled up. He was examined by a veterinarian and was found to have no apparent injuries to his legs. He walked comfortably back to his barn, the track veterinarian said.
Always Dreaming will now travel to Baltimore and try to conquer the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, on May 20. Perhaps most important, he will try to prove that he was the best of this 3-year-old bunch all along.