09/07/2012 4:12PM

Hovdey: Velazquez hardly resting on his laurels after entering Hall of Fame

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Tom Keyser
John Velazquez took a one-day working vacation at Del Mar this week while there was no racing in New York.

The autograph hounds were out in force on Del Mar’s closing day, bearing down on a fresh target. John Velazquez graciously complied, signing hats, shirts, books, programs, and photos every time he left the jocks’ room for the saddling paddock. If he minded he hid it well, although by now it’s pretty clear Velazquez does not mind at all.

Anyway, he had nothing better to do. It was Wednesday, and New York racing had gone dark for its period of mourning following the end of Saratoga. The Belmont fall meet did not open until Saturday, so the enterprising Velazquez journeyed west to ride a live one in the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity instead of staying home to polish his brand new Hall of Fame plaque.

“Nothing’s changed,” Velazquez said between races. “I don’t feel any different. But it’s been a lot of fun, and you get recognized in a little different way, especially in Saratoga.”

No kidding. Despite missing five key weeks in June and July, Velazquez, 40, still ranks fourth in purse winnings this season. He has won two national titles and two Eclipse Awards, a Derby and two Belmonts, and has an entire display to himself in the Sports Hall of Fame in his hometown of Carolina, Puerto Rico.

“I’d been at the ceremony when Mike Smith went in the Hall of Fame, and for Gary Stevens, and Jose Santos, “ Velazquez said. “Honestly, it never crossed my mind that I would be in the position I’m in now. Funny, though, I remember after Gary’s ceremony he came into the jockeys’ room. I congratulated him and everything, and he told me, ‘Someday I’ll be coming to yours.’ ”

At that point, in the summer of 1997, Velazquez was 25. He had finished in the year-end Top 10 only once when he was 10th in 1996, the season he broke through in a big way winning races such as the Mother Goose, the Met Mile, the Champagne, and the Beldame. But Velazquez had managed only a third in five Breeders’ Cup mounts, and in his only Kentucky Derby he had finished 19th. Nice call, Stevens.

For Velazquez, the Hall of Fame means a lot. But if nothing else, he wants to be known for his work promoting the welfare of his fellow riders. He has been chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild board of directors since 2006.

“I love this business, but the dark side is very dark,” Velazquez noted. “There is nothing more important than the safety of the horses and riders – and the industry is getting a black eye right now for cutting corners.

“There are a lot of tracks that have the right things in place,” Velazquez added. “But nothing is national. And too many times in our business something bad has to happen before anything changes. That’s been my fight – let’s do something to prevent one death or one rider getting paralyzed. You win the battle right there.”

Velazquez had no luck during his Del Mar visit, finishing second and eighth on undercard stakes and then fourth aboard Cape Bastone for trainer John Sadler in the Futurity. With a little better trip he could have been third, although it could be argued that Velazquez used up a large share of his good fortune earlier this year in simply recovering from his latest racing crash.

That was on June 16, at night at Churchill Downs. Just the week before Velazquez had urged Union Rags through on the inside to defeat Paynter in the Belmont Stakes. Earlier in the evening he had finished a close second with Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster. Riding a maiden named Mr. Producer, Velazquez was poised to take the lead in the stretch when the colt suffered a fatal fracture of a foreleg.

When jockeys go down and remain conscious they usually are very good at self-diagnosis. It comes with the job. Shortly after he stopped rolling, Velazquez knew something was broken because his right arm didn’t work. It was the collarbone, he figured, because it felt just like the left collarbone when he broke that one. He also complained of pain in his back, but X-rays showed no serious fractures.

“I told them I didn’t care what they saw, there was something wrong,” Velazquez said. “I’d had collapsed lungs before, but nothing that ever felt like this. Then when I went to give a urine sample it was full of blood.’

His right kidney was lacerated.

“It was very different,” he said. “Every move you made felt like fire coming from there. Even the skin was irritated. They explained that in 10 or 12 days a sac would start covering the kidney. After 2 1/2 weeks there was still the irritation of the skin, but not the same pain.”

On July 25, Velazquez was back in action at Saratoga, where he ended up fourth in wins and second in purses.

“It’s incredible how the body can heal itself,” Velazquez said.

A jockey remembers them all, to one degree or another. Velazquez almost lost count the year he fell eight times, and there was the Saratoga meet he fell six times, and kept getting up. Nothing had a more lasting impact, however, than the four-horse accident on Jan. 12, 1992, at Aqueduct, when he was just breaking into the American scene.

“I got kicked the year before in October and broke my hip, but didn’t know it was broken,” Velazquez began. “Came back in two weeks and had a fall in November. Went home to Puerto Rico for a vacation then came back in January. I was on the first horse that went down in that spill. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe. When they put me in the CAT-scan they said, ‘Your hip is broken. When did that happen?’ I said, ‘Three months ago.’”

Velazquez was soon back to work, but the ’92 pile-up marked the end of the line for Angel Cordero, the 49-year-old Puerto Rican legend. In 1998, Velazquez hired Cordero to be his agent, and the trajectory has been upward ever since.

“Just to be honored for the work you’ve done in your career, it’s a great compliment,” Velazquez said. “On the other hand, I’m still working. I’m not finished.”