06/09/2011 12:16PM

At Belmont, Velazquez has big edge in experience

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey John Velazquez has 1,501 wins and seven riding titles at Belmont Park. He will go for his second Belmont Stakes win Saturday, when he rides Animal Kingdom.

ELMONT, N.Y. − It’s not a stretch to suggest what Calvin Borel is to Churchill Downs, John Velazquez is to Belmont Park.

Since the retirement of Pat Day, Borel has become the master of Churchill Downs, especially in the track’s biggest race, the Kentucky Derby, which he has won three of the last five years. While Velazquez hasn’t been quite as successful in the Belmont Stakes − he is 1 for 14 − his overall knowledge, experience, and record of success here is vast.

Over his 20-year-career, Velazquez has amassed 1,501 of his 4,577 career victories at Belmont Park, where he also has won seven meet riding titles. (Because of insufficient records, it is unknown where Velazquez ranks in terms of wins at Belmont.)

Perhaps that experience will give Velazquez an edge over Jesus Castanon when the two square off in Saturday’s $1 million Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Velazquez, 39, will ride Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Castanon, 38, will ride Shackleford, the Preakness winner. Castanon is 5 for 41 at Belmont, and all five wins came in the summer of 2009, when he rode here for about three weeks.

“It’s a very unusual race for everybody to ride,” said Graham Motion, the trainer of Animal Kingdom. “The fact he rides here daily, he’s ridden the race many times, and won the race, I think it has to help us for sure. I think there’s something to be said for that.”

In the last five years, Velazquez has a win, three seconds, and a dead heat for third in the Belmont. His win came aboard Rags to Riches, the filly who won a stirring stretch duel with Curlin. However, Velazquez downplays his experience edge of riding the race.

“I think the most important thing is if you’ve been here at Belmont and you ride here at Belmont,” Velazquez said. “It doesn’t matter how many races you’ve ridden before. Just knowing the track is the most important thing.”

Belmont Park is the only 1 1/2-mile track in North America. Churchill Downs and Pimlico, where the Derby and Preakness are run, are both a mile in circumference.

“I think it’s a big advantage to have Johnny anywhere,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who uses Velazquez on the majority of his mounts but will have Javier Castellano on his Belmont mount, Stay Thirsty. “Obviously, this is his home track. He knows it well. You could make a case that probably holds true for some other riders as well − Ramon [Dominguez], Javier. They’re more familiar with the mile and a half circumference. For a rider that’s not used to it, it can be a little awkward, maybe.”

Last month, Velazquez dispelled the theory that it is important to have ridden your mount in a race before the Kentucky Derby. Velazquez was scheduled to ride Uncle Mo in the Derby, but that horse scratched the day before the race. A spill involving Animal Kingdom’s named rider, Robby Albarado, a few days before the Derby prompted the colt’s owners, the Team Valor International syndicate, to replace Albarado with Velazquez.

In the Derby, Velazquez put up a flawless ride, keeping Animal Kingdom in the clear before splitting horses entering the far turn and again finding a clear path toward the center of the track in the stretch. He won by 2 3/4 lengths.

Things were different in the Preakness. In a race with much more pace, Animal Kingdom was farther back and was taking − and resenting − dirt in his face early in the race. In the Derby, the dirt from other horses was hitting Animal Kingdom in the chest because he was closer to the ones he was trailing.

Still, Animal Kingdom launched a bid entering the far turn and sustained it to the wire, but he couldn’t catch Shackleford, who, despite running fast early fractions, kept on going, much to the chagrin of Velazquez.

“I was expecting that horse was going to come back to me,” Velazquez said. “I waited a little bit longer to get after him, to ask him for everything that he had, and the other horse kept running. Things happen you wouldn’t expect to happen, and that horse kept running, so it was a surprise for me.”

Velazquez said he sees the Belmont running more similar to the Derby, with a more moderate pace and his horse probably not as far back as he was in the Preakness.

“I think it’s going to be a grinder’s race,” Velazquez said. “Going a mile and a half, you can’t try to steal the race in front unless you’re going [a half-mile] in 52-and-change, and then it’ll be a sprint home basically the last quarter of a mile. If they go 23 and change to 48 and change or 49, he’s going to be close by the time we get to the backstretch.”

Velazquez, who worked Animal Kingdom over Belmont’s main track Monday, said he would like to see his horse run back to the race he ran in the Preakness.

“If he runs back the race he ran at Pimlico, he’ll be very tough, let me tell you,” Velazquez said. “The mile and a half, I think, will be good for us. He keeps coming the whole time, so I think it’ll be very good.”

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of races John Velazquez has won at Belmont Park.

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