Growing up a horse-crazed kid in Midway, Ky., Nick Bush had dreams of one day riding a Kentucky Derby winner. In a way, that dream was realized last weekend, when Always Dreaming romped to a 2 3/4-length victory in the 143rd Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
While John Velazquez was the jockey of record, Bush played an important role in getting Always Dreaming to the race in the best possible shape.
Bush was selected by trainer Todd Pletcher to gallop Always Dreaming for the final five days leading into the Derby. For whatever reason, Always Dreaming had become difficult when he arrived at busy Churchill Downs from the serenity of the Palm Beach Downs training center, and after watching the horse train aggressively for several days, Pletcher felt like he had to make a change.
Thus, Pletcher tabbed Bush to replace regular exercise rider Adele Bellinger, who had galloped Always Dreaming all winter, during which time the colt went 3 for 3, including a dynamic victory in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Pletcher also equipped Always Dreaming with draw reins, equipment that gives the rider more control by keeping the horse's head down.
Pletcher likened Bush's situation to "going in in the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl and quarterbacking.
"He's getting on a horse that he's never been on before," Pletcher added. "Obviously, the horse was in a zone and training very forwardly. Five days before the Derby, I thought he handled it really well."
Bush said there was some pressure the first two mornings, but once Always Dreaming became accustomed to the draw reins, he felt the pressure was gone.
"Everybody was watching me, so there was a little pressure," Bush said last Sunday, the morning after the Derby. "After the second day, I thrived with the pressure, and then there was no pressure at all."
Pletcher said, "My main concern was, 'Are you okay? Do you feel like you got him?' He said, 'I got him.' He felt good about it."
Bush, 30, was introduced to racing by his grandfather and father, who were both grooms on a farm in Kentucky. Bush said he was the first member of his family to start galloping horses, something he remembers doing at age 14.
Bush, who is 5-foot-5 and weighs between 135 and 140 pounds, said he tried playing basketball and football in school but was too short. He wanted to be a jockey, but he didn't keep his weight in check.
"I wanted to be a jockey, but I got a little too heavy," Bush said. "I wish when I was 16 somebody would have sat me down and said, 'Hey, you need to quit eating now.'"
Prior to joining Pletcher 10 years ago, Bush said he worked for trainers Patrick Biancone and John Ward and had a brief stint with Nick Zito. He also worked as a freelance rider at a training center in Kentucky.
Some of the more notable horses Bush galloped for Pletcher were Grade 1 winners Liam's Map, Mshawish, Awesome Maria, and Daredevil and Grade 2 winner Revolutionary, who finished third in the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
"He's a very good rider," Pletcher said. "Very enthusiastic, likes his job, professional. He's not a big guy, but he's pretty strong for his size."
"This is really cool. It was a dream to win the Kentucky Derby as a kid," Bush said. "Actually, being able to work for a trainer that did it and to be able to ride that horse was amazing."
At Pimlico this week, Bush had gotten on Always Dreaming for three morning training sessions through Friday. The colt jogged Wednesday, galloped Thursday, and jogged again Friday, a morning when the track was wet.
"He's right there where you want him to be, coming out of his skin," Bush said Friday. "He still wants to do more, he's happy, he's feeling good. That's a plus."
Conquest Mo Money breezes
Conquest Mo Money, most recently second to Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby on April 15 at Oaklawn Park, worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds Friday at Prairie Meadows. Working by himself, Conquest Mo Money went his opening quarter-mile in 24.20 seconds and galloped out modestly, according to Prairie Meadows clocker Bob Nastanovich.
"He goes along evenly and finishes like he's looking for competition," said Nastanovich, who has seen Conquest Mo Money work three times now. Since coming to Prairie Meadows, Conquest Mo Money has worked five furlongs in 1:02.31 on April 27 and six furlongs in 1:14.20 on May 5.
"He works a little slow, but that's just him. He's not really impressive," said Miguel Hernandez, who trains Conquest Mo Money for the Judge Lanier Racing of Tom and Sandra McKenna, who paid $150,000 to supplement Conquest Mo Money to the Triple Crown following the Arkansas Derby. "He worked really good. I think he's ready to rumble."
Hernandez said Conquest Mo Money is scheduled to arrive by van at Pimlico on Sunday. He said the colt is likely to have a walk day Monday before he resumes galloping Tuesday. Hernandez is scheduled to arrive Wednesday.
-- additional reporting by Marcus Hersh