01/28/2005 12:00AM

Team Velazquez ends up No. 1

John Velazquez credits his agent, Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., for helping him reach a higher level as a rider.

John Velazquez admits he needs a little push now and then. His agent, the former Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., is more than happy to oblige.

In 2004, Cordero helped push his protege to new heights as Velazquez set personal bests for wins (335) and purse money won ($22,248,661). Those numbers - which included two Breeders' Cup victories - helped Velazquez earn his first Eclipse Award as North America's leading jockey. Velazquez, who received 241 out of the 273 first-place votes cast, ended the four-year reign of Jerry Bailey, who had won this award seven times since 1995.

Velazquez was quick to credit Cordero, himself a two-time Eclipse Award winning rider, and made sure to bring him to the podium at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Monday when Velazquez accepted the award from Hall of Fame riders Julie Krone and Laffit Pincay Jr.

"He's been my father, my mentor,'' the 33-year-old Velazquez said of Cordero. "Without him I would not be here; he's the one who pushed me to a different level.''

Cordero and Velazquez complement each other. While Velazquez has a world of talent, he is not motivated by records like Cordero is. When Cordero tried to convince Velazquez to ride through December to make a run at Bailey's single-season earnings record, Velazquez declined, saying he wanted to spend that time with his family.

"He wants to push it,'' Velazquez said, "whereas I'm just come on and relax; if it happens, it happens. He's go-go all the time; that's what I mean where he pushes me to a different level where I'm so laid back and don't think about records.''

Cordero, who won 7,057 races in his career, marvels at how much Velazquez has already accomplished. Velazquez was leading rider on the New York Racing Association circuit for the fourth consecutive year with 228 victories. He was leading rider at Belmont Park's spring and fall meets, and his 65 wins at Saratoga were a meet record, eclipsing the mark of 61 he set in 2003. Velazquez won nine Grade 1 races and 40 graded stakes overall in 2004.

"I never dreamed that he was going to be the rider that he is,'' Cordero said. "I never thought that he could accomplish what he accomplished in that short a time. But he did it and he did it the hard way. Thank God we have the people behind him that we have, like Todd [Pletcher] and Bobby [Frankel] and Shug [McGaughey] and Kiaran McLaughlin.''

Velazquez and Pletcher make up the dominant jockey-trainer combination in the country. Velazquez won both Breeders' Cup races for Pletcher, who was crowned champion trainer.

"There are no words to express myself and the gratitude I have for him,'' Velazquez said of Pletcher.

Jockey: John Velazquez