07/27/2004 11:00PM

The one to thank for Johnny V.


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It was 1992, and John Velazquez was going home to Puerto Rico. Two years in the country, in a slump at Saratoga, the 21-year-old jockey was gone.

Until his heart said no.

Not necessarily his heart for racing, but his heart for trainer Leo O'Brien's then 21-year-old daughter Leona.

"It was my roughest year," Velazquez said. "Everything went wrong, I was having trouble with my agent. I wasn't even going to finish the meet, I was going home. I was going out with Leona, and that was what stopped me from going. I was in love."

Velazquez can thank Mike Smith for it all.

Smith and Velazquez were walking to the paddock in 1991 when Velazquez saw Leona for the first time.

"Who's that?" Velazquez asked.

"That's Leo's daughter," Smith said.

"Man, she's beautiful," Velazquez said.

"I'll be your agent," Smith said.

Smith went to Leo's barn the next day asked the Irish-born trainer for permission and asked Leona for approval. The date was set.

"Mike was riding Fourstardave at the time and he got the ball rolling," Velazquez said. "That's how it happened. It was pretty easy for me. The only hard part was the conversations because I couldn't speak English very well. She had a hard time understanding me - I guess it made it fun. I'd try to explain things, and it would come out differently than I wanted."

A wedding, two kids, and 2,000-plus winners later, Velazquez, 32, is firmly in place at the top of the New York jockey colony. He goes home to Puerto Rico to see his family once a year. That's as much bolting as he does these days.

"I guess people fall in love and then it goes from there," Velazquez said. "I knew after the first month, but she wasn't sure. It took a year and a half for her to be sure. Leo's always been great. He never made it difficult until the day I asked permission to give her the ring, and he said no. But [his wife] Joan talked to him, and I asked her to marry me at her birthday party at Leo and Joan's house. After it was all said and done, they have been really good to me. They've always treated me like family."

The son-in-law worked his way through the riding standings, even riding Leo's only Eclipse Award winner Yanks Music in 1996. This year, he finished as the top jockey at Belmont's spring meet and comes to Saratoga ready to improve upon his record 61 winners in 2003. Last year, he and Todd Pletcher combined to break both the jockey and trainer records for most wins, and this year could be even better.

Velazquez graduated from Puerto Rico jockey school, rode for two months, and came to America in 1990. He landed at Angel and Marjorie Cordero's house and began his arc to number one rider status in New York. He has been the leading jockey in New York for the last three seasons. Just another overnight success story.

Velazquez's first agent, Tico Garcias, asked the man who ran the jockey school for a favor - let this young, hard-working, gifted rider into school, he will not disappoint you.

"Before you start riding, you have to groom, do stalls, everything," Velazquez said. "I was taking care of a filly named Mini Ella. It was me and another guy, but the other guy never showed up. She was mean. She kicked me every day - when I hotwalked her, fed her, cleaned her feet. Then I started getting on her and I got even with her."

He's not kidding. Velazquez has a steely demeanor. He's quiet and polite, but he's also doggedly determined - every race, every day. His finish is strong and fluid. He's matured into a veteran jockey who gives every horse a chance to win. He doesn't overthink, and he doesn't overcelebrate.

It's not surprising. He came up under Cordero and was involved in the spill that ended Cordero's riding career in 1992. Cordero eventually became Velazquez's agent and has pretty much taught him everything he knows. Velazquez put spit and polish on it all, and the result is on display every day at Saratoga.

"At school, I was very excited" Velazquez said. "I knew then, this was what I was going to do. But when I came here, I never felt like I belonged. You don't speak the language, you don't feel like you fit in, you don't feel like you're a part of it. It takes a long time to get used to it. Now there are times I still don't feel like I fit in, but I'm more comfortable with myself and I'm more confident, so I don't really care as much. I guess that helps my riding."

Thank you, Leona.