Years of training, months of preparation, and many sleepless nights for owners, trainers and jockeys culminated in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. In the end, the most exciting two minutes in sports came down to the race co-favorite, Always Dreaming, figuring out how to win in the mud.
Dreaming, with jockey John Velazquez, avoided being mired in the mud by sticking close to the lead on the backstretch. As the field turned to the homestretch, he made a move to the front and pulled away to win by 2¾ lengths and remain undefeated as a 3-year-old.
See how Always Dreaming went from post to winner's circle on Saturday, as 35 cameras stationed all around the mile-and-a-quarter track documented the event.
The field for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs emerges from the starting gate. Co-favorite Always Dreaming, with jockey John Velazquez aboard, starts from Gate 5.
The Churchill Downs starting gate crew watches the Derby field make its way down the frontstretch. The gate crew, which is highly trained for what can be extremely dangerous work, will have to remove the starting gate from the path of the horses that will return to this portion of the track within two minutes.
Running before the twin spires of the Churchill Downs grandstand early in the race, some riders have already changed their goggles in the muddy conditions.
State of Honor, a long shot at 51-1, takes an early lead while Velazquez positions Always Dreaming into the second spot by the rail. State of Honor trainer Mark Casse planned to send the horse out fast from Post 6 in hopes that he wouldn't fade.
A blanket of mud envelops the jockeys and horses, who leave large holes in a racing surface that is sloppy from two mostly rainy days at Churchill Downs.
With a mile remaining in the race, surprising State of Honor maintains the lead, with Always Dreaming in second and 37-1 long shot Battle of Midway in third. Race enthusiasts correctly predicted that the sloppy track could produce a free-for-all.
Always Dreaming and Velazquez take control of the position by the inside rail -- a spot they would not relinquish for the rest of the race.
Jockeys maintain spacing between horses to minimize the risk of a fall in the slippery conditions. No horses were injured in the 143rd Derby, though Thunder Snow was pulled up after appearing uncomfortable coming out of the gate. He was walked back to the barn under his own power.
Horses in the back of the pack are already caked with mud before hitting the first turn of the race. Not all of the horses are comfortable in this setting. Javier Castellano, rider of Gunnevera, will later say of his horse: "I didn't think he handled the [sloppy] track at all."
Coming out of the shadows of the grandstand, mud flies into the air and helps coat the back of the pack.
The field enters the clubhouse turn in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the corner. A walk-up, general admission ticket for the 2017 Derby was priced at $80.
Velazquez sits exactly where he and trainer Todd Pletcher planned heading into the first turn -- on the inside and right behind the early pace-setter. "The trip unfolded not exactly the way we had planned," Pletcher will later say. "We knew for sure we didn't want to be behind a wall of horses and that turned out OK. Johnny [Velazquez] of course rode him great."
Riders stay close to the turn at the seven-eighths pole, as the gorgeous green grass from the inner track sits just off past their path.
Always Dreaming, having taken his first lead of the race, starts his move to separate from the muddy pack at the quarter pole. "I got a good position with him early and then he relaxed," Velazquez said. "When we hit the quarter pole, I asked him and he responded. He did it himself from there."
Churchill Downs' iconic twin spires loom magnificently atop the grandstand. Churchill Downs hosted 158,070 people for this edition of the Kentucky Derby.
A 31-1 long shot before the race, Lookin At Lee attempts in vain to close the gap on Always Dreaming. Lookin At Lee rider Corey Lanerie, who was also a Preakness runner-up on Cherry Wine in 2016, said, "My horse ran great. I'm caught with seconditis -- second in the Preakness and now second in the Derby. I'm still very happy."
The crowd begins to celebrate as Always Dreaming charges even further ahead. Always Dreaming returned $11.40, $7.20 and $5.80, per $2 wager, for those who picked the horse to finish in the money.
The horses race down the home stretch. Velazquez takes one last look back to see where he stands as the finish line rapidly approaches.
Time to celebrate for Velazquez, who gives a slow fist pump as the victory starts to sink in. "This is the best horse Todd [Pletcher] and I have ever come to the Kentucky Derby with," Velazquez said. "Nothing against all the others, but this was the best horse."
Velazquez tosses roses from the blanket of 554 awarded to the annual winner. This tradition is believed to have started in 1883, when New York socialite E. Berry Wall presented roses to 554 ladies at a post-Derby party attended by Churchill Downs founder Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr.
Velazquez sprays Always Dreaming owner Vinnie Viola with champagne in the winner's circle. Now begins the quest for an encore -- neither Velazquez nor trainer Todd Pletcher have ever won the Preakness Stakes.