On Track with Johnny D: Clean as a Whistle

Saturday, at the conclusion of the 143rd Kentucky Derby (aka ‘The Old Man in the Slop’), the winner was as obvious as the mud on your face. Always Dreaming and jockey John Velazquez emerged from a soupy 20-horse scrum as fresh as the ‘after’ shot in a detergent commercial. They were spotless. Clean as a whistle.

By the way, various Internet sources inform that the origin of that previous simile refers to the whistling sound of a sword as it swishes through the air in the process of decapitation. How horrible! Who knew? All these years I thought it had something to do with the crisp, pleasant sound of air exiting pursed lips.

Metaphorically speaking (or blogging), decapitation is a near equivalent to the level of punishment meted out in Louisville. Tragically, the others never had a chance. Swoosh! It was over early.

Thunder Snow, a sophisticated, Irish-bred globetrotter that at a young age has competed in Great Britain, France, United Arab Emirates and the United States, displayed admirable discretion. In the post parade, he took one look at Always Dreaming and noted that the muscular, dark brown or bay son of Bodemeister was as cool as the other side of the pillow. Surmising the fight was over before it had even started, ‘Snow refused to get hot and dirty for nothing. Right out of the gate he bucked and jumped to warn others of impending doom. He was ignored.

In hindsight, it’s abundantly clear that the only real chance any of them had to win centered on the prospect of Always Dreaming ‘losing his feces’ somewhere along the journey between his stall and the two-headed, green monster known as the Churchill Downs Derby Day starting gate. When he didn’t it was ‘Goodnight Irene.’

Saturday, the rank, pulling, aggressive Always Dreaming turned as ‘chill’ as Jimmy Buffett in Margaritaville. Mr. Edward Hyde into Dr. Henry Jekyll. Beast into Beauty.

Make no mistake, Always Dreaming’s pre-Derby training antics were not imagined. They were as real as a punch in the face. This did not appear to be the usual 3-year-old ‘feeling good.’ He was acting out. Like a 3-year-old child.

Fortunately, Daddy Todd knew what to do. He changed sitters. Replaced a gentle, loving, talented teacher in Adele Bellinger with Nick Bush wielding a firmer, stricter hand. A new kiddie harness helped, too. One offering less freedom of movement. A shorter leash.

To many Todd Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby record has been a source of amusement and consternation for several years. His work with Always Dreaming ought to eliminate any subsequent criticism in relation to what happens in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. The sure-fire, unanimous, first-ballot Hall of Fame trainer had won just one Kentucky Derby out of 45 starters in 16 previous editions. On the surface, not good. A different angle, though, suggests that Pletcher may, in fact, have overachieved by managing to get 45 horses into the Kentucky Derby starting gate in the first place. An accomplishment many trainers would gladly embrace.

No matter. Point’s moot. A pair of Kentucky Derby wins will silence future criticism like earmuffs.

Pletcher and his crew believed they possessed a bazooka in Always Dreaming. Unfortunately, upon arrival in Louisville, the cannon’s safety was disengaged and the weapon appeared about to discharge prematurely. If that had occurred, massive casualties would have been unavoidable, especially hundreds of thousands of deceased Benjamins that were wagered on his nose.

In racing there’s a maxim that suggests, ‘a loaded gun is dangerous in anyone’s hands.’ Translation: a good horse can overcome poor training. That may or may not be true. But once a horse, especially a developing 3-year-old colt, becomes headstrong, aggressive, and rank during Derby Week…immediate and effective measures are required. In other words, in such situations, that loaded gun had better be in the hands of a marksman.

As followers of keystrokes in this space are well aware, I did not include Always Dreaming in my suggested Kentucky Derby plays. I thought, on Derby Day, that he would act the way he had while training at Churchill Downs. Run off at the start, get caught up in a pace duel and then fade into oblivion in that long Churchill Downs stretch. I also assumed that the colt had come too far, too fast. That his huge effort in the Florida Derby, way faster than any of his previous races, would take a toll on him in the Kentucky Derby.

None of that happened. Unlike Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, a great Italian American before me, I can admit when I’m ‘Wrrrrr….Wrrrrr…Wrrrrr….’ Fonzie’s correct, it’s difficult to say I’m ‘Wrong!’ There, happy?

Always Dreaming made ‘the walk’ without turning one hair on his gorgeous body. He was reserved in the crowded paddock and smiled for the NBC camera in the post parade. Heck, before the race, he did everything perfectly, except to join in the singing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’

Always Dreaming left the gate alertly and was forwardly placed. But he wasn’t rank. At all! In fact, quite the opposite was true. He relaxed for Velazquez and permitted State of Honor to show the way for a bit. When his Hall of Fame partner gently angled Always Dreaming outside State of Honor into a comfortable stalking position, he responded with aplomb. I realized right then that it was over.

And it was. For foes and my dead presidents. Swoosh! Clean as a whistle!

Now it’s on to Baltimore where Always Dreaming ought to be a ‘bear.’ It’s way too early to make a Preakness prediction, but early returns suggest that two Saturdays from now he’ll be on his way to the Big Apple with a pair of Triple Crown jewels glued to his bridle.

The 2017 Kentucky Derby is in the books. It will be remembered for cold, rain, a guest walk-on appearance by the sun and a sloppy track. Imprinted indelibly in this writer’s memory will be the image of Always Dreaming and jockey John Velazquez roaring through the sloppy Churchill stretch sporting bright, spotless racing silks. Alone, untouchable and as obvious as the mud on your face.

Race On!




On Track with Johnny D: Clean as a Whistle

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