08/29/2005 11:00PM

No better rider in big-money races

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Despite an 0-for-34 slump at the Saratoga meet, jockey John Velazquez has delivered when it matters most, winning 14 stakes and $3.6 million in purse money.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - John Velazquez won't put up the record-breaking numbers at this Saratoga meet that he has in years past. Heck, he may not even win his third straight riding title up here. Still, it could be argued he has had his most successful Saratoga meet ever.

In 2004, Velazquez won 65 races here, breaking the Saratoga record of 61 he established in 2003. Through Monday, Velazquez had won 34 races from 191 mounts at this meet, trailing Edgar Prado by four wins. But 14 of Velazquez's victories have come in stakes races, including four Grade 1's and five Grade 2's. Velazquez's total Saratoga purse earnings of $3,647,937 already surpassed his 2004 total of $3,565,318.

The highlight, of course, was last Saturday when Velazquez guided Flower Alley to victory in the $1 million Travers, the jockey's first win in Saratoga's showcase event. Velazquez's other Grade 1 wins this meet were in the Diana, Go for Wand, and Ballerina. Velazquez will seek his fifth Grade 1 win of the meet Saturday when he rides Forest Danger in the $250,000 Forego Stakes.

"Winning all those races and winning the title was nice,'' said Velazquez, who also won a Saratoga riding title in 1998. "Winning the Travers tops it all. Coming here trying to concentrate on winning as many races as you can, all of a sudden you win the Travers and it's an overwhelming feeling. It definitely was special.''

Flower Alley's emergence also comes at a perfect time. Velazquez's top older horse, Roses in May, was retired at this meet with a tendon injury. Velazquez had ridden Roses in May to victory in the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

"I'm very fortunate that I'm in that position that I can pick up something else,'' said Velazquez, who will ride Flower Alley next in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 1. "Flower Alley is coming along very good.''

Velazquez is the defending Eclipse Award-winning rider. He leads all North American riders in purse money won this year with $12,529,759.

For the first time in several years, there is an actual contest for leading rider entering the last week of the meet. Prado, who won the title in 2002, will miss one day this weekend to ride in California, opening the door for Velazquez, who is expected to be here all week. For Velazquez, winning the title is not paramount.

"I'm not crazy about getting in a battle for the title,'' Velazquez said. "If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I'm really happy the way the meet is going. The numbers don't match last year, but it doesn't really matter. I'm having a great meet, winning a lot of important races, that's what counts.''

Velazquez is in contention for the Saratoga riding title despite a stretch in which he went 0 for 34. He broke out of that skid by winning the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders' Cup on Aug. 21 aboard Suave, a win that started an 11-for-48 streak.

"It gets to you," Velazquez said of his mid-meet slump. "You think, 'What am I doing wrong?' At the same time you think, 'Well, I'm not going to change anything, I'm not going to ride any different. The horses are not responding to what I want to do. I'm not going to change it.' If you start changing and thinking different, then you start making stupid mistakes.''

Off the track, Velazquez has been concerned with the health of his father, Juan, who lives in Puerto Rico. A few weeks ago, Juan Velazquez, 63, was hospitalized due to complications from a blood disease he has had for several years. At one point, doctors weren't sure he was going to survive.

But Juan Velazquez's condition improved to the point where last week he was released from the hospital and is home recuperating.

"He's very strong, that's what's keeping him alive,'' Velazquez said of his father. "He has gone through three scares - this was the third one - where they thought he wouldn't make it. He was having a lot of complications, but two or three days later he came through it. It has been hard, but thank God he's doing well.''

Velazquez cashes in

DateRace, GradePurseHorse
Aug. 28Ballerina, G1$250,000Happy Ticket
Aug. 28Tenski68,000Insan Mala
Aug. 27Travers, G11,000,000Flower Alley
Aug. 27Fourstardave, G2200,000Leroidesanimaux
Aug. 26Spinaway, G2250,000Adieu
Aug. 21Saratoga BC, G2250,000Suave
Aug. 20Troy67,200Funfair
Aug. 11De La Rose67,000Path of Thunder
Aug. 5Honorable Miss, G2150,000Forest Music
Aug. 4Statue of Liberty250,000Karakorum Splendor
July 31Go for Wand, G1250,000Ashado
July 30Diana, G1500,000Sand Springs
July 30Jim Dandy, G2500,000Flower Alley
July 29Lake George, G3 100,000Ready's Gal