The Main Track: Second Derby Success Just as Sweet for Velazquez

Racing
Jockey John Velazquez sprays champagne in a victory celebration in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle on May 6 at Churchill Down. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to this Kentucky Derby edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.             

Each Tuesday in this space we will spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, we’ll relate the story of how the smell of roses was just as sweet the second time around for a Hall of Fame jockey.

At the age of 45, jockey John Velazquez knows how difficult it can be to win the race against Father Time.

“I know I’m not getting any younger,” he said.

Yet with age also comes an increased appreciation for each and every grand opportunity and an even richer savoring of those moments when success follows. Like it did on the first Saturday in May for the jockey known as Johnny V.

Walking away from the track after a race at Belmont Park on Sunday afternoon, Velazquez could barely move a few feet without stopping to accept congratulations from well-wishers. A couple of times, he tossed sets of goggles to fans in the grandstand who were clamoring for a souvenir.

Then, as he sat on a table in the jockey’s room, he wore the satisfied smile of a record-breaking rider who had just achieved success at its highest level.

On Saturday, Velazquez put all of his talent and experience to full use as he guided Always Dreaming to a 2 ¾-length victory in the Kentucky Derby as the 4.70-1 betting favorite in the opening leg of the Triple Crown.

A sweet Derby victory. (Eclipse Sportswire)

For Velazquez, and trainer Todd Pletcher as well, Always Dreaming provided a much-welcomed second Kentucky Derby victory in a race that can define a career in many eyes.

Coming in Velazquez’s 28th year as a jockey and his 19th trip to the Derby, he echoed Pletcher’s words from a day earlier that a second taste of victory in America’s most famous race was just as heavenly as it was the first time.

“It’s the same for me as it was for Todd,” said Velazquez, who won his first Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom. “It never gets old. Winning the first time was special and the second time is nothing less. It’s very special. At my age, you want to take advantage of every opportunity you get in a race like the Derby. You’re just appreciative to be 45 and to get the opportunity to ride a horse like Always Dreaming.”

Making it even more special for Velazquez was that in his second trip to the winner’s circle at the run for the roses, he was joined by Pletcher, his partner in a jockey-trainer combination that has dominated the sport for more than a decade.

Together both trainer and his No. 1 jockey have risen to uncharted heights. Both are the all-time leader in career earnings by a wide margin. Pletcher tops all trainers with purse earnings of $338,819,298, more than $62 million than D. Wayne Lukas in second through May 8. Velazquez stands atop the jockeys’ list with earnings of $363,962,361, putting him more than $66 million ahead of Pat Day, who is currently second.

They have been a team since Pletcher’s first days as a trainer. When the former Lukas assistant went out on his own and won his first race in New York with Rare Rocks on April 1, 1996, the $35,000 maiden claimer owned by Pletcher’s father, Jake, cruised to a 12-length victory with none other than Velazquez in the saddle.

Since then, together they have won four Breeders’ Cup races, the Belmont Stakes, Travers, Whitney, Alabama, Haskell, Florida Derby and Metropolitan Handicap, just to name a select few of the prestigious Grade 1 stakes wins. Yet there was one noticeable omission to that list that was remedied when Always Dreaming brought them to Churchill Downs once again.

Velazquez and Pletcher embrace. (Eclipse Sportswire)

“It was especially rewarding to win it for Todd,” said Velazquez, whose only second- or third-place finish in the Derby came with Pletcher’s Invisible Ink in 2001. “We have enjoyed so much success together but the Kentucky Derby was missing, and it’s such a great feeling to add that to all of the stakes we have won.”

Some of Velazquez’s closest friends in the jockeys’ room also knew how the Pletcher-Velazquez combo needed success on the first Saturday in May to add even more glitter to a spectacular set of accomplishments.

“Johnny and Todd have enjoyed a great relationship for 20 years with so many great horses and winning so many big races, but they needed to win a Kentucky Derby together,” said jockey Jose Ortiz. “This adds so much to the great things they have done.”

The close bond between Velazquez and Jose Ortiz and his brother, Irad Jr., reflects the passage of time since Velazquez and Pletcher won their first race together. Back then, Velazquez was an up-and-coming, 24-year-old jockey from Puerto Rico, a few weeks away from claiming his first riding title at Aqueduct. Now in his mid-40s, he’s a deeply respected big-brother figure to New York’s young crop of riders, such as the Ortiz brothers, who also hail from Puerto Rico.

That bond between the newer and older generation of New York riders could be seen after the Derby, when the horses were galloping out to the backstretch after the race. Jose Ortiz, who rode Tapwrit – one of three Pletcher horses in the race – to a sixth-place finish, guided his horse next to Velazquez and Always Dreaming. When Velazquez saw Ortiz approaching, he pumped his fist in the air. The two riders then extended their arms to slap hands, but Velazquez then put his arm around Ortiz’s shoulder and pulled the young rider toward him as they embraced and patted each other on the back before heading back to the unsaddling area for diversely different receptions.  

“I was very happy for Johnny,” said Ortiz, an Eclipse Award finalist last year. “We’re very close and he’s been a role model for me. I want to be like him.”

With one monumental victory down, Velazquez and Pletcher now head to Pimlico Race Course, where they will try to complete a personal Triple Crown. Neither has won the Preakness Stakes, with Pletcher owning an 0-for-8 record and Velazquez being 0-for-7.

Only twice have they teamed in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Stradivari was fourth at 8-1 last year and Circular Quay was fifth at 6-1 in 2007.

Perhaps the third time will be charm.

Always Dreaming figures to be a solid favorite in the Preakness, though Velazquez has been riding long enough to know success is guaranteed to no one on a racetrack.

“Always Dreaming has showed a lot of potential and he’s done everything that’s been asked of him,” Velazquez said. “He’s won on slow tracks, fast tracks, wet tracks and he’s showed great talent doing it. You never know how a horse does from race to race, but if he can stay healthy this can be a very special horse. Maybe this is the time Todd and I win the Preakness.”

If it is, it can’t happen soon enough for John Velazquez. After all, he’s not getting any younger. Just more appreciative.


THE ALSO-ELIGIBLE LIST

Here’s some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Record highs for Kentucky Derby, Derby Day handles

 Kentucky Derby viewership largest since 1989

China Horse Club grabs signature win in Kentucky Oaks

Divisidero takes Woodford Reserve Turf Classic

One-eyed Patch is something special

Mor Spirit wins Steve Sexton Mile

Connect wins Westchester

Jockey Sutherland wins 1,000th race

H-2B provision stays in Congress’ spending bill

Does new Aqueduct turf course signal broader changes?

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