08/10/2012 4:00PM

Racing Hall of Fame: Velazquez and Attfield comments cap emotional ceremony

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Barbara D. Livingston
From left: Trainer Roger Attfield, jockey John Velazquez, and the rider's wife, Leona, share a light moment at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Class and speed are two of the primary ingredients for success in horse racing. Class and speed were common threads at Friday’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion up the street from Saratoga Race Course.

One would be hard-pressed to find two classier inductees than trainer Roger Attfield and jockey John Velazquez. And there might not have been a faster Thoroughbred to have run in the last two decades than Ghostzapper, the 2004 Horse of the Year, who recorded four Beyer Speed Figures of 120 or higher, including a 128 for his victory in the 2004 Iselin Handicap.

In keeping with the speed theme, the ceremonies – which included the induction of trainer Robert Wheeler, jockey Anthony Hamilton, and the horse of yesteryear, Planet – were conducted in less than 90 minutes. The brevity of the ceremony was due in part to the lack of a keynote speaker as Daily Racing Form’s Steven Crist, scheduled to give the keynote speech, had to skip the ceremony because of the death of his mother, Judith Crist, earlier in the week.

The capacity crowd at the Finney Pavilion – which included 16 previous Hall of Fame inductees – was treated to several brief and – particularly in the case of Velazquez – emotional speeches.

Velazquez, 40, was presented his plaque by trainer Todd Pletcher, who has teamed with Velazquez to win 1,226 races. Pletcher said Velazquez’s induction “raised the bar” for future inductees but not only for his skills and statistics as a jockey.

“More importantly than that to me is he’s a terrific role model, a terrific husband, a caring father, just an all-around really super human being,” Pletcher said, to which the crowd responded with applause.

[HALL OF FAME: Career highlights of the 2012 inductees]

Velazquez, who ranks third all-time in purse money won and who has 4,841 career victories, got choked up on several occasions, first attempting to thank his mother, who was in from Puerto Rico and “who did not want this for my career,” he said.

After having to stop a few more times and once stepping to the back of the podium to say something to master of ceremonies Tom Durkin, Velazquez was joined on stage by his wife, Leona, who stood by her husband’s side during the remainder of the speech, which included some lighter moments.

In thanking his family for their support and sacrifice, Velazquez said, “I missed a lot of birthdays, missed a lot of graduations, the most recent one when my daughter graduated sixth grade.”

When told it was his daughter’s eighth grade graduation, Velazquez said “I just came from a spill, I had a concussion.”

In another lighthearted moment, Velazquez, alluding to the fact that other jockeys are riding regularly now for Pletcher, thanked Pletcher for his support and said “The marriage is still alive, right Todd? We haven’t gotten divorced yet.”

Toward the end of his speech, Velazquez got more emotional when he thanked the deceased Ralph Theroux Sr., an agent who took Velazquez’s book for a second time in 1992 when Velazquez was struggling.

“He put me on the right track where I am today standing in front of you,” Velazquez said. “So thank you, Ralph, I know you’re watching.”

David Willmot, the retired CEO of Woodbine Entertainment and a longtime owner-breeder in Canada has been watching Attfield for more than 40 years. Willmot said that Attfield “has an amazing capacity to train anything to do anything. . . . His love and concern for the health and welfare of the horse is also unmatched.”

Willmot noted how cool it was on June 24 to watch the Grade 3 Singspiel Stakes at Woodbine, when the Attfield-trained duo of Musketier, 10, and Simmard, 7, battled to the wire with Musketier winning by a head over Simmard.

“He knows how to keep a horse happy and how to extend their careers,” Willmot said.

Attfield’s accomplishments include training 44 Sovereign Award winners and having won eight Sovereign Awards of his own as Canada’s leading trainer.

Attfield, 72, thanked the people who worked alongside him over the years as well as the owners who have “entrusted him with their horses and their investments. I have a great deal of respect for them.”

Lastly, Attfield thanked the horses he trained.

“Without the horse none of us would be here. They’re very, very special animals – noble beautiful animals,” Attfield said. “If they’re kept healthy and sound and well they’ll always run their best for you. I think it’s very important that you respect this.”

Attfield sent the most strongly worded message of the ceremonies, saying it saddens him that racing has received so much bad publicity lately, seemingly a reference to reports detailing a perceived drug problem in the sport.

“We’ve got to clean up some of this stuff that’s going on out there, get rid of the rubbish,” the English-born Attfield said. “I feel really, really strongly about it. You only need two or three bad apples in the basket and the rest of the basket is ruined.”

During her acceptance speech for the induction of Ghostzapper, Elfrida Stronach, wife of owner/breeder Frank Stronach, remembered her phone calls with Bobby Frankel, who trained Ghostzapper and who died in 2009.

“I communicated well with Bobby,” she said. “When I called him and say how’s the horse? He would say ‘He’s in good order and he will run very well.’ Then he would somehow switch the conversation to his dogs. . . . I miss Bobby very much.”

Jeff Wheeler accepted the Hall of Fame plaque on behalf of his grandfather, Robert Wheeler, who from 1938 until his death in 1992 won 1,336 races and who trained 56 stakes winners, including the champion Track Robbery as well as Hall of Famer Silver Spoon.

“Statistics stand on their own, but there are three words in particular that come to mind when I think of Gramps,” Wheeler said. “One was honor. He honored his profession. One was respect. He respected his horses above all. He respected his familly, he respected his owners. And devotion to duty. That man was devoted to what he did.”

Sarah Wright, the great-great granddaughter of Planet’s owner, Major Tom Doswell, accepted the plaque for the horse, who won 27 of 31 races in the 1850s.

“I grew up with a picture of Planet hanging on the wall in our home,” said Wright, who added the horse was “a member of the family.”

Anthony Hamilton, who rode in the late 1800s, became the third black jockey in the last eight years – and fifth overall – to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, according to Brian Bouyea, communications director for the Hall of Fame, who accepted the plaque on Hamilton’s behalf.