07/20/2004 11:00PM

Here's when Johnny V. is most live


LAS VEGAS - If you're playing the races in New York, I have some valuable advice for you: Watch out for John Velazquez.

At first glance this bit of advice might not seem all that helpful. After all, John Velazquez is the leading rider at the Belmont meeting, and he has achieved that status principally because he spends a good portion of each day riding Cadillacs for leading trainer Todd Pletcher. So we certainly don't need anyone to tell us that Velazquez is a rider to be reckoned with. But there are certain special situations when you can get tremendous value with Velazquez, and the Belmont card on July 14 proved the point.

In the second race, Velazquez had the mount on a horse named Boston Garden. The trainer, George Weaver, used to work for Todd Pletcher, and Velazquez often rides for Weaver - although not as often as in years past, since Weaver's win percentage has dropped down to the 10-percent range. In Boston Garden's first two starts at the maiden special weight level, Velazquez did not choose to ride, and the horse ran up the track on both occasions, losing by a combined total of more than 50 lengths. Weaver then decided to drop Boston Garden into a $50,000 maiden claiming affair and switched to Velazquez. But Boston Garden's Beyer figures of 25 and 21 still lagged 30 or 40 points behind even this very ordinary field. So why did Velazquez take the mount? Was he just doing a favor? Being loyal? My experience with Velazquez and his agent, Angel Cordero, said "No." They're wired into winners. They're not big favor-doers - unless it's for a high-profile trainer who can throw them more lucrative business down the road.

Boston Garden was heavily bet, opening at odds of 9-2. He led gate to wire, and held the field safe by 1 1/2 lengths. He paid $14.80.

In the fifth race that same day, Velazquez had the mount on a first-time starter named Blazing Purrsuit, trained by Jimmy Toner. The workouts were modest, at best, and the competition looked very tough on paper. Jerry Bailey was on Morph, who had earned an 85 Beyer in his only lifetime start on June 27. Christophe Clement had Clear the Bases, who had Beyers of 80 and 81 in two of his last three races. Trainers Allen Jerkens, Nick Zito, Kiaran McLaughlin, and Wayne Lukas also had runners in the race. Despite this seemingly stiff competition, and despite the unimpressive workout line, Velazquez's mount opened at odds of 5-2. He won by 1 1/4 lengths, paying $11.

These are not isolated examples. It's a trend I've noticed for years now. Whenever Cordero-Velazquez takes the mount on a stranger, a shipper, or an oddball runner not trained by one of their regular, elite trainers - whenever you ask yourself, "Why is Velazquez riding THIS horse?" - that's when you have to watch out, and that's when you can get good value on the meet's leading rider. If these horses get bet, get on board. They win.

On July 18, Cordero-Velazquez picked up another interesting mount, a recent disappointment named Theconfidenceman. Velazquez used to ride regularly for his father-in-law, Leo O'Brien - trainer of Theconfidenceman. But in recent years O'Brien has not had many winners. This year, for example, before Sunday's seventh race he had had only four winners in 69 starts - a 6 percent win rate. So Velazquez seldom rides for his father-in-law these days.

That's what made Theconfi-denceman so interesting. O'Brien's 3-year-old New York-bred colt had shown tremendous promise early in his 2-year-old season. In his first start in 2003, Velazquez had ridden him to a six-length score at odds of 9-1. In his second race (without Cordero-Velazquez) the horse had continued to impress, finishing third in an open-company allow-ance race on the grass, earning a strong Beyer of 76. But Theconfi-denceman's fortunes had declined since those efforts. In fact, in three starts on the grass in 2004 (and as recently as July 1) he had done little, finishing sixth, fifth, and sixth, losing by a combined total of more than 30 lengths and earning Beyer figures of 57, 70, and 65 - not even close to the 76 he had earned as a 2-year-old. Needless to say, Cordero-Velazquez had not taken the mount in any of those disappointing efforts.

So why was Velazquez suddenly named to ride Theconfidenceman on Sunday?

And why did the horse open at the surprisingly low odds of 7-2? The answer was not long in coming. Despite breaking two lengths behind the field, and despite a slow pace in front of him, Theconfidenceman moved up strongly on the turn, settled in behind the leaders at the top of the stretch, angled out for room, and then closed with a powerful kick to draw off impressively in the final 50 yards. He blew past the second-place finisher, Speedjama - another well-meant, well-bet runner who was making his grass debut. Theconfidenceman won by two lengths, paying $8.40.

Alas for Speedjama's connections, they had the misfortune of running into Cordero-Velazquez Inc. Whatever the explanation for Theconfidenceman's abrupt turnaround, one thing remained clear: Cordero and Velazquez have the inside track. When they pick up a strange-looking mount, watch out. They're wired for winners.