September 28, 2021

Brooklyn & Always Dreaming

Always Dreaming with John Velazquez up in the winner's circle after winning Kentucky Derby 143 at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 5, 2017 (c) Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com

by TERESA GENARO

When Anthony Bonomo started racing horses in 2006, he named his Brooklyn Boyz stable after the borough in which he’d grown up, and to which he still felt a close tie. Not uncommonly, he’d name his horses after places in the old neighborhood: Lorimer Street, McCarren Park, Jackson N Humboldt.

It’s been a long time since Bonomo lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the neighborhood has sure changed since then. Once a bastion of Italian-American residents, it was for a while the home of artists taking up residence in abandoned factories; edgy and at times dangerous, it became known has a haven for drug users and dealers.

More recently, Williamsburg helped lead the real estate boom in Brooklyn, its waterfront location offering tempting opportunities for developers and the bohemian rich; if hipster Brooklyn has a birthplace, it’s Williamsburg.

But that’s not the Brooklyn that Bonomo and Vinnie Viola remember. Friends since childhood, the two joined racing forces last year, owning a number of horses in a partnership that includes their wives Mary Ellen and Teresa. And less than a year after going into business together, the partners celebrated winning the Kentucky Derby with a horse Mary Ellen Bonomo named Always Dreaming because, as her husband said, “That’s what you have to do every day, especially in this business.”

The Williamsburg that Bonomo and Viola remember is the Williamsburg of Bamonte’s Italian restaurant, established in 1900, back when there were three racetracks in Brooklyn, further south and east. After winning the Florida Derby, Bonomo joked that friends back in Brooklyn were celebrating in Bamonte’s, and he predicted that Viola was likely to be hit with a big bar bill in the next couple of days.

Both Bonomo and Viola have had, over the last couple of years, reasons to want their names out of the headlines. Bonomo’s company was implicated in a New York State government corruption case, causing Bonomo to step down from his position as president of the board of directors of the New York Racing Association. Concerned about conflicts of interest, Viola withdrew his name from consideration as a nominee as Secretary of the Army in the Trump administration, and the hockey team he bought in 2013, the Florida Panthers, has made the post-season only once since then, losing in the first round.

But on May 6, one can only imagine what the scene in Bamonte’s was like (and how high the bar bill went). And on Saturday afternoon, Bamonte’s — perennially named among the best old school, red-sauce joints in New York City, will no doubt once again be mobbed with people cheering home the horse owned by the men who grew up in the neighborhood.

“You know, I think we just knew, when we got together, something special was going to happen,” said Bonomo after winning the Derby. “It’s been a family affair.”

“To sit up here, we have to say, really, we are two kids still in our heart from Brooklyn, New York, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, who always dreamed,” Viola concurred. “And this is one of the dreams to come true.”

Teresa Genaro has lived in Brooklyn since 1998 and a decade ago founded the Brooklyn Backstretch racing blog.