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Thursday, 01 August 2013 15:11

Making History: Velazquez Becomes Saratoga’s Winningest Jockey

By Brian Cremo | News

SARATOGA SPRINGS — In his 24th year as a professional jockey, John Velazquez still has the same love for racing since his days of riding street horses in Puerto Rico as an 8-year-old kid.

“If you don’t have the love, you couldn’t be here,” Velazquez said. “It’s a very demanding job. All the glory and everything is great, but it’s a demanding job, very consuming. A lot of time is sacrificed as well. If you don’t love what you do, I think it would be very difficult to do it this many years. I couldn’t do this by myself either. With everybody behind you and giving you support and giving you the best rides, it makes it easy to come back and love it.”

In the fourth race on Saturday, July 27, Velazquez sat in fifth place with Unitarian before the far turn on the Mellon Turf Course. At that point, he knew there was an opportunity to not just win but become the Saratoga Race Course’s all-time winningest jockey.

“It was incredible,” said Velazquez, a member of the Puerto Rican and U.S. Racing Halls of Fame. “Just coming around and seeing that I had a chance to get it done.”

Unitarian did just that, pushing ahead of Parnelli in the final furlong for the milestone victory.

“It was very special,” Velazquez said. “Finally we got it done and now we can move on to other things.”

After being swarmed and congratulated by fellow jockeys in the winners circle, new NYRA CEO and President Christopher Kay announced to Velazquez, “We are so pleased for you and we are so proud of you, and as a result we are going to commemorate this special day with a plaque that will be seen next spring with your name on it, Jerry’s (Bailey) and a couple of the other great jockeys that have performed so well here at the Saratoga Race Course.”

Bailey was present, along with Velazquez’s agent, friend and idol Angel Cordero, Jr. The two riders, who “Johnny V” considers two of the best he’s ever seen, now sit behind him in career Saratoga wins (Bailey-693, Cordero-649).

“Doing it here in Saratoga, it’s a special place,” Velazquez said. “Winning here where all the owners and trainers have the best horses every year…I had great support by the fans. Every race I was going out there, they were cheering for me to break the record. I wish it was like this everywhere I go, but obviously Saratoga is a special place. It makes it worthwhile to be here and get it done here in front of the crowd. It was incredible, a great feeling.”

Velazquez did recognize the change in race opportunities since Cordero’s days.  The now 40-day meet was once over a span of 24 days with fewer races per day. 

After tying the record with three wins the previous Thursday, Velazquez was winless in three mounts Friday. It was fitting for Saturday’s win to be on a Todd Pletcher-trained horse. Velazquez has been riding for Pletcher since 1998, the same year he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Da Hoss by a nose. Race No. 4 ended up being his one win out of six mounts Saturday.

Heading into Wednesday, he had 5,025 career wins with over $289 million in earnings. Velazquez, 41, has also shown no signs of stopping any time soon before heading into his goal of a post-racing career in finance.

“I sure love the game and I feel that I’m young enough to compete at the high level that I’ve been doing it at for the last few years,” Velazquez said. “I’ll go for a few years and then I’ll see how far it goes and then I’ll make a decision. I don’t have any timetable where anything is going to happen. I’m just going to let it be and see what happens in the next few years.”

Becoming the top rider at the 150-year-old race course is yet another milestone set this season for the jockey who reached the 5,000 North American-win mark back on June 14 after winning each of his three mounts at Belmont Park (also on a Pletcher horse, Galloping Giraffe).

“I have to say thank you to everyone who has helped support me throughout the years,” Velazquez said. “I’ve been riding for 23 and a half years and every trainer and owner has supported my career for this long.”

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