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Second Kentucky Derby win is doubly sweet for Pletcher, Velazquez

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trainer Todd Pletcher fought back tears. Jockey John Velazquez sprayed champagne around the winners' circle.

2017 KENTUCKY DERBY

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Tom Durkin, a former longtime Kentucky Derby announcer who now holds a minority interest in the Kentucky Derby winner, whooped and hollered as he made his way over a muddy track still holding water from two days' worth of rain.

Just minutes before, favored Always Dreaming had skipped over the Churchill Downs homestretch to take the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

In the end, it wasn't really even a contest. Always Dreaming sat right behind the pacesetter, took the lead around the far turn, and won as he pleased.

"I felt the way he was running, I said 'They will have to run really fast to get him,'" Velazquez said, recalling the run to the wire.

The horse made it look easy. It wasn't.

Just days before the race, Pletcher wasn't sure what he would see out of his colt, who changed from an easygoing horse to a ball of energy as soon as he stepped on the track's grounds.

Pletcher had to pull every trick in the book to get Always Dreaming to settle down, including changing exercise riders and the equipment used in the colt's morning workouts. Any changes to a horse's routine so late in the game is often seen as a last-ditch effort and could be somewhat of a warning sign.

Velazquez took it as a sign his mount was simply ready to run the race of his life. Pletcher wasn't sure.

"We felt like he was sitting on 'go' … almost to the point our main focus was just trying to deliver it at 6:45 on Saturday and not 6:45 Thursday morning," Pletcher said.

John Velazquez earned his second Kentucky Derby win by riding Always Dreaming to victory. Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Added Velazquez: "I asked Todd, 'How was my horse?" And he was like 'He's ready to run.' And I was happy with that. That's what I needed to hear."

Getting Always Dreaming to run his race may just have been one of Pletcher's greatest training jobs. Perhaps that was the reason for the rare display of emotion.

Or maybe, after so many years of failed attempts, it was pure relief.

If Pletcher and Velazquez's celebration seemed out of character, it was because both men had every right to act like they'd been there before. Both had won the Kentucky Derby — Pletcher with Super Saver in 2010 and Velazquez with Animal Kingdom in 2011. Velazquez is in the Racing Hall of Fame. Pletcher has won more than 4,000 races, good enough for 10th all time.

But there was something about this one that clearly resonated with both men. Despite their respective successes, they have been criticized for their records in the Derby. Velazquez is now 2-for-19. Pletcher is now 2-for-48. Whenever Pletcher's career record was brought up, his Derby misfires were sure to follow.

Pletcher once felt he had to defend his merits, without really understanding why. Did one more Kentucky Derby win really make him a better trainer than he was before?

The comments clearly ate at him privately.

"To me, it felt like I really needed that second one, you know? One more," Pletcher said. "The first one was extra special. I have a tremendous respect for the race, tremendous respect for how difficult it is to win.

"But I felt like we needed another one as a team to put it together. And I felt like Johnny and I needed one together as well."

Pletcher's relationship with Velazquez dates back more than 20 years. When Velazquez was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame, Pletcher was there. Velazquez has often joked it's the only relationship that has lasted almost as long as his marriage.

Clearly, this one was special.

"He's still hungry," said the 46-year-old Velazquez. "I'm not getting any younger. Let's put it that way. Winning with Todd, it was very special. … The feeling that you get is actually you are hungry, you are still here, you still have it."

Now, as eyes turn to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the duo has a chance to complete a new first together– win the Preakness Stakes. It's one race that has eluded both the trainer and jockey.

For now, they'll celebrate. In a few days, they'll have to defend their record again.

"Been taking a lot of criticism for our Derby record, so we were hoping to improve on that," Pletcher said. "That's what you do. That's what I try to inspire my kids with, that you can have challenges and you are not always going to do as well as you want, but you got to get up and work hard at it and you got to keep trying. When it doesn't work, figure out why and keep going…

"I was hoping there was another one and thankful there was."

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