06/05/2001 11:00PM

Good times, bad times for jockey Velazquez


ELMONT, N.Y. - While riding at the top of his game professionally for the last eight months, jockey John Velazquez has also been riding an emotional roller-coaster personally.

After enduring a broken collarbone in August and the death of close family friend Marjorie Cordero in January, Velazquez was dealt another setback this week. Tuesday night he was informed that his father was admitted to a hospital in Puerto Rico and may have leukemia.

Velazquez left for Puerto Rico Wednesday morning, taking off his mounts at Belmont Park Wednesday and Thursday to attend to his ailing father. Velazquez is planning to return to New York on Friday in time to ride at Belmont, and he said he will definitely be back in time to ride Kentucky Derby runner-up Invisible Ink in Saturday's 133rd Belmont Stakes.

"I don't get to see [my father] very much," Velazquez said Wednesday morning before catching his plane. "I want to go down there in case something really bad happens and I don't get to see him."

The news of his father's illness comes just five months after the hit-and-run death of Marjorie Cordero, wife of Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero, who is Velazquez's agent and mentor.

Velazquez said Marjorie was like a sister to him, welcoming him into her and her husband's home when Velazquez first came to this country in 1990. Velazquez said that Marjorie's death was devastating to him and that he is not sure he ever properly grieved for Marjorie.

"I feel like I never completely did," Velazquez said. "I had to be so strong for [Angel], and you don't know what to say. You don't know how to bring it up. It's very hard for me to bring it up."

In between these personal tragedies, Velazquez has been riding in the finest form of his career. And Velazquez said he will be entirely focused on the task at hand aboard Invisible Ink, who may have the talent to give Velazquez his first victory in a Triple Crown race.

"When I go into my work, I focus on what I'm doing," said Velazquez, who recently won his 2,000th career race. "[My father's] in my prayers and I do my best for my friends and my family. But when I'm riding, I go 100 percent."

Velazquez has really been focused since last summer. In the first 10 days of the 2000 Saratoga meet, Velazquez had ridden 10 winners and was atop the rider standings. But on Aug. 5, he was involved in a spill in which he suffered a concussion and a broken left collarbone. He missed the remainder of the meet and did not return until Sept. 8.

Velazquez admits he rushed his return, and the lingering effects of the injury hurt his performance to a degree. He missed several days and was forced to limit his rides.

"I came back a little too early because I wanted to get back on the horses I was riding, because they were winning," Velazquez said.

Velazquez did not get to keep some of those horses, most notably More Than Ready, who won the Grade 1 King's Bishop and was second in the Vosburgh with Pat Day.

Despite having only three mounts in the Breeders' Cup, Velazquez had a big day by winning the Juvenile Fillies with longshot Caressing and finishing third, beaten a neck and a nose, in the Mile aboard Dansili.

Following the Breeders' Cup, Velazquez returned to New York and has been consistent. Since the Aqueduct meeting last fall, Velazquez has won 133 races from 529 mounts in New York, a solid 25 percent clip. He was the leading rider at Aqueduct's fall and spring meets and through Wednesday was the leader at the Belmont meet.

At Gulfstream, Velazquez finished as the third leading rider with 52 wins. Two of those wins came aboard Invisible Ink, who matured into a Triple Crown contender during the Gulfstream meeting. After winning two allowance races, he finished a troubled third in the Florida Derby.

In the Kentucky Derby, Velazquez said he was enjoying a great trip until Monarchos swept in front of him in upper stretch. It forced him to steady a bit, which is one reason why Velazquez claimed foul against winning jockey Jorge Chavez, an objection that was denied by the stewards.

Velazquez said he has been looking forward to the rematch ever since.

"I think we have a really good chance," Velazquez said. "The key is who is going to handle a mile and a half. We don't know who is going to last the whole way. If he goes back to the way the ran in the Derby, just steady, steady, steady, he's got a good chance."