11/07/2013 3:00PM

Jay Hovdey: For Velazquez, success comes at high price

Barbara D. Livingston
John Velazquez, here aboard Palace Malice, is recovering from emergency surgery to remove his spleen.

John Velazquez was feeling almost human again.

“I finally got to take a shower,” he said, as he walked across the room and settled gingerly into his hospital bed with the help of his wife, Leona. Mike Smith, John’s pal, was of no help at all.

“The nurses were beginning to talk about how bad you smelled,” Smith said.

Velazquez winced. Usually he’d have a snappy comeback. Right now he was ready for a Tylenol.

“That’s all I want, just to take the edge off,” Velazquez said. “The stronger stuff just makes me feel worse.”

Velazquez had a right to feel as bad as he pleased. The nasty surgical wound beneath his left rib cage was the outward evidence of the primary damage caused last Saturday when his mount, Secret Compass, suffered a fatal fracture and sent Velazquez hard to the ground around the final turn of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, whereupon he was kicked by a trailing horse.

It was the first Breeders’ Cup race of the day, and it happened just before Leona and their two children, 15-year-old Lerina and 10-year-old Michael, had arrived at Santa Anita from their hotel. Velazquez, bleeding internally, was taken by paramedics to the trauma center at Huntington Memorial Hospital in nearby Pasadena, where he underwent emergency surgery to remove his damaged spleen. Now, four days after his surgery, the lesser bruises and abrasions sustained in the fall were coming out from hiding, revealing themselves in all their glory.

“That’s how it works,” Smith said. “When you go down like that sometimes you’ll discover a new one every day for awhile. At least your X-rays are all good.”

“The worst is my arm,” Velazquez said with a careful flex of his left arm. “You can see it’s still swollen.”

This reporter has been present at many such inventories, when jockeys must submit to the emergency ministrations of health care professionals as part of the price they pay to play the game they love. The scene was agonizingly typical, although the players in this case were unique, Mike Smith being the most successful jockey in the history of the Breeders’ Cup and John Velazquez the most successful jockey in history, period, at least when it comes to the money won by the horses he has ridden.

Velazquez is also “The Chairman” to his fellow riders, as the leader of the Jockeys’ Guild board of directors. It was in this capacity that he attended the awards dinner of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association on the Wednesday evening before the Breeders’ Cup to help honor Ramon Dominguez, whose career was cut short earlier in 2013 by a head injury sustained in a fall at Aqueduct. Together they accepted a donation on behalf of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.

Velazquez, who turns 42 on Nov. 24, has paid a stern price for his cut of the nearly $300 million earned by his mounts. Just last April he fractured a rib and chipped a bone in his wrist at Aqueduct. In June of 2012 he broke his collarbone and lacerated a kidney at Churchill Downs. In April of 2006 he fractured his shoulder at Keeneland. And so on, back to Jan. 12, 1992, when he was the first rider to go down in a four-horse pile-up at Aqueduct that ended the legendary career of Angel Cordero Jr., who later became Velazquez’s agent.

“We went to the hospital together that day,” Cordero recalled this week. “They released Johnny, and I stayed for 27 days. For me it was the end of one career and turned out to be the beginning of another.”

Cordero broke three ribs and an arm that day and suffered a lacerated liver. He also had his spleen removed, which puts Velazquez in good company. Cordero was asked what life has been like these past 21 years without the fist-shaped organ that is found just above the stomach, acting primarily as a blood filter.

“You can get sick a lot,” Cordero said. “The immune system is the problem. He’ll have to stay away from people who have a cold. The fortunate thing is that it can make you try to stay even more healthy. Unfortunately for me, when I quite riding I lost my fitness, and the body does not respond the same. But I don’t think losing the spleen is going to give him any trouble physically, as far as riding.

“I was almost 50 when it happened,” Cordero added. “Johnny is only 41. He’s still got a lot of life left.”

According to Velazquez, it will take six to eight weeks of recovery from the surgery “before I can even lift anything,” which is why he is taking things day to day in the immediate wake of the trauma. Down time for any rider is always difficult and Velazquez, for all his celebrity, is no different.

His Tylenol tablets arrived, and Velazquez washed them down with a grateful pull from a bottle of apple juice brought by Smith. He turned to his wife.

“You know what Michael asked me?” Velazquez said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Dad, are you going to be able to walk?’ I didn’t even know he was worried about that.

“When I told him I would be okay, that of course I would be able to walk, he gave me this big smile,” Velazquez said. “It was like a big weight lifted off him and everything was going to be all right.”