05/07/2011 8:40PM

Kentucky Derby: Velazquez has unusual path to first win

Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey John Velazquez celebrates his first Kentucky Derby victory aboard Animal Kingdom.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Up until Friday morning, no one could blame John Velazquez if he felt cursed when it came to the Kentucky Derby.

On Saturday, Velazquez went from cursed to blessed in just a little more than two minutes.

VIDEO: Velazquez interview after winning Churchill Downs Stakes »

Picking up the mount on Animal Kingdom on Friday morning, Velazquez guided the 20-1 shot to a surprising 2 3/4-length victory in the 137th Kentucky Derby, Velazquez’s first win in this race in his 13th attempt. He only got the mount when Barry Irwin, president of the Team Valor International syndicate that owns Animal Kingdom, opted to take assigned rider Robby Albarado off the horse because of a broken nose and other facial injuries he suffered in a post parade spill Wednesday. Albarado was physically able to ride Saturday, winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff earlier on the card.

“It’s a little strange because one of our own jockeys got hurt and that’s how I picked up the mount,” said Velazquez, who is the president of the Jockeys’ Guild and who wore a Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund hat during the post-race press conference. “You definitely feel bad. This business is a rollercoaster. I’ve been on the other end as well. I’ve been hurt and watched horses that I’ve been riding win Grade 1’s – I’ve seen that a lot. I told Robby if we do win this race, I’m going to take care of you.”

Velazquez did not elaborate on what that meant. If Velazquez does indeed get 10 percent of the winner’s share of the purse, that would result in a $141,800 payday for him.


Albarado was injured Wednesday when his mount, Smoke’n Al, dumped him and kicked him in the face, breaking his nose. Albarado did not ride Thursday or Friday. Shortly after Uncle Mo was scratched Friday, it was announced that Velazquez would ride Animal Kingdom. Irwin said that by not riding Friday, he felt Albarado may not be 100 percent to ride the Derby, even if he returned to the saddle Saturday.

“We thought that was a risk we weren’t prepared to take,” Irwin said. “When Johnny came open, we decided to go with him. We just didn’t dump Robby to go get John, I wouldn’t do anything like that. I like Robby, he’s won a lot of good races for us; he’s a hell of a pro. This thing just came up bad. Believe me, we will find a way to make this up to Robby.”

Albarado brushed aside reporters seeking comment after the Derby.

Velazquez said he was surprised to see Albarado in the jockey’s room Saturday ready to ride. He said the only thing Albarado told him about Animal Kingdom was “you’re riding a good horse.”

For Velazquez, Saturday’s victory was sweet after what seemingly was going to be a third straight year of sour memories.

In 2009, his mount, Quality Road, who had just set a track record in the Florida Derby, was withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby five days out due to quarter crack. Last year, Eskendereya, who would have been the favorite for the Derby, was withdrawn due to a leg injury. Then on Friday, two days after entries were drawn, Uncle Mo, last year’s 2-year-old champion and morning-line second choice for Saturday’s Derby, was scratched due to an undetermined ailment.

Velazquez said he handled Uncle Mo’s defection the same way he handled the previous two.

“It was not meant to be,” said Velazquez, 39. “I didn’t go and hang myself.”

Mike Repole, the owner of Uncle Mo, and his wife Maria, waited for Velazquez to walk into the interview room to congratulate him.

“I couldn’t be any happier with the result, it’s all about Johnny,” said Repole, whose other horse, Stay Thirsty, finished 12th in the Derby. “He’s ridden so many winners for me. Two months ago after [Uncle Mo] won the Timely Writer, I said Johnny ‘what does the Kentucky Derby mean to you? He said `Mike, it’s my Super Bowl.’ ”

Pletcher, who won last year’s Derby with Super Saver, said he felt “really good” for Velazquez, who is his main rider. “He deserved it.”

Velazquez is represented by the Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who won this race three times. Cordero was extremely emotional afterward.

“I guess it was meant to be,” he said. “We waited all year for Uncle Mo and now this horse comes open at the last moment. I think I’m dreaming to be honest with you, I’m shaking. I rode harder than he rode. This was his dream. That was my dream when I rode.”