Always Dreaming, Girvin get wins in big Derby prep races

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. (AP) Todd Pletcher has sent more horses to the Kentucky Derby than almost anyone.

Joe Sharp hasn’t sent any.

Yet both trainers were celebrating in much the same way Saturday.

The field for next month’s Kentucky Derby came into more focus on Saturday, when the Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming posted an impressive win at the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Sharp-trained Girvin prevailed in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

Always Dreaming needed a big showing Saturday to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. So did Patch, another Pletcher-trainee who was running in the Louisiana Derby.

They both delivered, with Patch finishing second, and Pletcher now could ultimately have as many as five starters when the Triple Crown season starts on May 6. Pletcher has sent 45 horses to the Kentucky Derby so far in his career, three shy of the record owned by his mentor D. Wayne Lukas.

Pletcher currently has four of the top 11 horses in the current Road to the Derby points standings, with more to run next weekend.

”It seems like a really strong group,” Pletcher said. ”You have to appreciate these things.”

Girvin, the favorite, beat Patch by 1 lengths and was three lengths ahead of Local Hero – who might now be Kentucky-possible as well.

”Other than having my kids, I don’t know if there’s another feeling like that in the world,” owner Brad Grady said after watching Girvin prevail with a big stretch run.

This is the fifth time the Derby field will be decided by a system where the top four finishers in certain prep races collect points.

Values start small, with 10 points going to the winner and one for fourth place in the beginning of the prep season. Available point totals rise along the way and races like the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby are at the top level, 100 points to the winner. Four of those races remain, with the Wood, the Blue Grass and the Santa Anita Derby next Saturday and the Arkansas Derby on April 15.

”The most difficult race in the world to win,” Pletcher said of the Kentucky Derby.

FLORIDA DERBY

Always Dreaming had never been on a stage like this before, with both of his previous career wins – after going 0 for 2 as a 2-year-old – coming in a maiden race and an allowance race.

He wasn’t bothered.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Always Dreaming got the lead at the top of the stretch and held off State of Honor and a hard-charging Gunnevera for the win (returning $7.40).

The plan all along for Always Dreaming’s connections – who include Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola – was to be patient in the early part of this year and wait for the right spot, which became the Florida Derby.

”The horse has been training exceptionally well,” Pletcher said. ”That was a very impressive performance.”

Pletcher won the Florida Derby for the fourth time, and the third time in the past four years. Velazquez also got his fourth Florida Derby crown, all coming in the past nine years.

State of Honor was second, those 40 points giving him 62 in the standings and a certain Derby invite. Favored Gunnevera, which already had its spot secure in the Derby after winning the Fountain of Youth, was third.

”It was a good race for the next one,” Gunnevera trainer Antonio Sano said.

LOUISIANA DERBY

Sharp’s wife has been part of the Kentucky Derby three times.

This year, it looks like his turn.

Sharp trains Girvin, who had already done enough to qualify for a Kentucky Derby spot after winning the Risen Star back on Feb. 25. And Girvin left no doubt on Saturday, holding off Patch to win the Louisiana Derby.

Girvin ($4.60) finished the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.77. He would be the first Kentucky Derby horse for Sharp – whose wife, retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, rode in the Run for the Roses in 2011, 2013 and 2014.

”We’re enjoying the ride,” Sharp said.

Patch took a bump at the start of the race, and recovered nicely. Local Hero held the lead briefly, then surrendered the top spot but edged Hollywood Handsome for third by a nose – and that could ultimately prove enormous when filling out the Derby field. Local Hero got 20 points for that third-place finish, giving him 30 in the Derby standings.

AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed.

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