12/23/2013 2:16PM

Velasquez continues to show he's the consummate professional

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NYRA/Adam Coglianese
Cornelio Velasquez, 45, has won more than 3,400 races since moving to the U.S. in 1996.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. – Despite having won the 2013 Aqueduct spring meet title, jockey Cornelio Velasquez was on the verge of leaving New York for south Florida earlier this year. With the higher-profile riders about to return for the Belmont meet, Velasquez had lined up an agent to handle his business at Calder, a track at which he enjoyed success when he first came to the U.S. from Panama in the mid-1990s.

In April, jockey Ramon Dominguez suggested to Velasquez that he hire his agent, Steve Rushing. Dominguez at the time was unsure about his own future following a spill in January (he ultimately announced his retirement in June). The chance to get a well-respected agent plus the prospect of Calder and Gulfstream racing against each other, prompted Velasquez to stay in New York.

“Two racetracks opening, that was no good for me,” Velasquez said in a recent interview. “I want to stay here for a couple more years. I like New York. The people treat me good, the people respect me. A lot of trainers give me a chance.”

As usual, Velasquez made the most of his opportunities in 2013. He won 204 races – 203 on the New York Racing Association circuit, where he will finish in the top four among jockeys in wins on the year – and his mounts have earned close to $11 million. Velasquez, 45, has gotten off to a terrific start at Aqueduct’s inner-track meet, with 13 wins from 45 mounts, placing him tied atop the standings with Irad Ortiz Jr., who is also represented by Rushing.

Velasquez, who has ridden more than 3,400 winners since moving to the U.S. permanently in 1996, is described by those who ride him regularly as the consummate professional. He has his steady clientele, riding for trainers Linda Rice, Rudy Rodriguez and, increasingly, David Jacobson, the leading trainer in terms of wins on this circuit for two straight years.

“Cornelio is just a seasoned veteran, and he can adapt to any situation that happens out there,” Jacobson said. “I don’t classify him as good on the lead, or a good come-from-behind rider, or good on the grass, or good on the dirt. He’s just a seasoned veteran who seems to make the right moves a lot more than not.”

Rice recorded the first 100-win year of her career in 2013; 50 of her 101 victories came with Velasquez in the saddle.

“He’s just a solid performer, year after year,” Rice said. “He’s not up and down, his performances are consistent. He tries really hard on every horse. He’s not a man of many words, but usually whatever he has to say about a horse is very accurate. I’ve found that to be the case for 10 years. I appreciate that – very straightforward – and he doesn’t try to make excuses when they’re not there.”

A case in point was Saturday’s Gravesend Handicap when he finished second behind Strapping Groom on the Rice-trained odds-on favorite, Palace. After the race, Velasquez simply said Strapping Groom “was much the best.”

Perhaps what horsemen and horseplayers respect most about Velasquez is that there is no difference in the way he rides a $12,500 claimer and a graded stakes horse.

“To me, it’s the same thing,” said Velasquez, who this year won the Grade 1 Jamaica aboard Up With the Birds for the Canada-based trainer Malcolm Pierce.

“No ego involved, he just wants to win every race and that’s what I need,” Rice said. “That works well for my stable, that’s what I’m about, too – just trying to win every race possible.”

Velasquez has never won a Triple Crown race, though he came within a half-length of winning the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard 71-1 longshot Closing Argument. Though he had ridden Vyjack to three wins from as many starts, including the Grade 2 Jerome to begin 2013, owner David Wilkenfeld replaced him in March for a more high-profile rider in Joel Rosario.

Velasquez didn’t fret about it. He maintains a strong relationship with Rudy Rodriguez, the trainer of Vyjack, and continues to ride other horses for him. For Velasquez, if a good 3-year-old comes along, great. Until then, he’ll simply concentrate on the next race.

“I just want to ride my horses and win a couple of races,” he said.