05/13/2011 3:52PM

Velazquez and Motion: Good friends, now Derby winners

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Justin N. Lane
Kentucky Derby winning jockey John Velazquez and trainer Graham Motion have been close since the 1990s.

ELMONT, N.Y. – On Monday morning, two days after the Kentucky Derby, John Velazquez walked into the kitchen of his Long Island home, grabbed a cup of coffee, and sat down next to his wife Leona. He thought he had just accomplished something very important in his career, but just to make sure he sent a text message to his friend, trainer Graham Motion.

“I think I won the Derby for you,” Velazquez’s message read.

Motion, still in Louisville at the time, replied, “Yes, I think it really happened.”

So, it took a little while, but the reality of winning his first Kentucky Derby eventually sunk in for the 39-year-old Velazquez, who, after 12 previous mounts in the world’s most recognized horse race, finally found the winner’s circle.

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“It’s great to get it done,” Velazquez said earlier this week while accepting congratulations at his home track of Belmont Park. “It’s what you’re here for; all of these jockeys, trainers, and owners, it’s the race that everybody talks about, and it’s always on your mind and finally to win it and to get it done is definitely very special.”

While most associate Velazquez with trainer Todd Pletcher, for whom Velazquez has ridden hundreds of winners, that he won his first Derby for Motion was somewhat fitting. Velazquez and Motion are quite close, dating back to 1997 when they first met in south Florida as both were in the early stages of their careers.

Velazquez was riding his first full meet at Gulfstream Park when he met Motion, who put him on three winners that winter. Velazquez’s wife, Leona, the daughter of trainer Leo O’Brien, knew Motion because her brother, Keith, rode steeplechase horses when Motion worked for Jonathan Sheppard.

“I remember Johnny coming home one morning and saying ‘I met this great trainer and his wife, they were so nice and he said he likes the way I’m riding and I’m going to get to ride for him,’ ” Leona Velazquez recalled her husband saying. “I said ‘Who is it?’ He said, ‘Graham Motion.’ I said ‘I know Graham.’ My brother said if you bring horses to Gulfstream look up my brother-in-law.”

Motion said he considers Velazquez “one of my best friends” and said it was “very emotional” that he won the Derby with Velazquez.

“He’s not one I’ve been able to use as much as I would like to do in the past, because he’s so committed to Todd,” said Motion, who has won 41 races with Velazquez. “He’s won stakes for me at Saratoga. He’s an exceptional rider and he’s an exceptional human being.”

The two families – along with trainer David Donk and his wife Fay – have remained close friends since the mid-1990s. The Motions and Velazquezes each have two children, and their sons were born two weeks apart in spring 2003.

In fact, John Velazquez said he was taken aback by his son Michael’s tearful reaction to the Derby victory and said he felt that had lot to do with his friendship with Marcus Motion.

“It was a big surprise for me to see him and the emotions that he showed and the crying,” Velazquez said. “He’s not very into racing. He loves the horses and he loves to be in the barn – he could be in the barn all day – but the racing part of it he’s not very into it. So for him to show that emotion about winning the race, it was surprising to me.”

For Velazquez, the Derby victory was a long time coming. He rode the race for the first time in 1996, finishing last aboard Built for Pleasure. He finished last in 1998 aboard Basic Trainee and again in 1999 on the filly Three Ring.

But the last few years, Velazquez was sitting on the probable favorite for the Derby only to see those horses be forced to miss the race due to injury. A quarter crack sidelined Florida Derby winner Quality Road in 2009. Last year, Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya was felled by a leg injury that ended his career. This year, it was Uncle Mo, the reigning 2-year-old champion, who was scratched from the race the day before with an undetermined illness.

Velazquez only picked up the mount on Animal Kingdom on Friday morning when owner Barry Irwin and Motion decided to replace Robby Albarado, who was kicked in the face by a horse on May 4.

To prepare for the ride, Velazquez said he watched a replay of Animal Kingdom’s victory in the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and was impressed with how the horse rallied from last to win.

“He made a move from the three-quarter pole to the half-mile pole where all of a sudden he was laying third,” Velazquez said. “I said ‘Damn, that was a huge move.’ That was impressive. I said if he handles the dirt, he’ll be a good useable horse. That gave me a lot of confidence watching the race.”

Velazquez said Motion also gave him confidence in their pre-race meeting.

“He said ‘Johnny this horse is training unbelievable, he’s doing great, I really like him, I don’t know how he’s going to react to the dirt, but he’s training really, really good,’ ” Velazquez said. “He said ‘The only thing is don’t worry so much about saving the ground, I’d like to give him a race that’ll be an easy trip and a clear trip. If you can do that with him, I think we’ll be in good shape.’ ”

Velazquez gave Animal Kingdom just such a trip. He was three wide while in 12th position early behind comfortable fractions. At the three-eighths pole, Velazquez split horses and then guided Animal Kingdom four to five wide for the stretch drive. He made the lead inside the sixteenth pole and won by 2 3/4 lengths over Nehro.

“It was like riding a little car, that impressed me,” Velazquez said. “He was not shook up by anything I asked him to do. He just did it normally. He got the spot and held the spot, and when I pulled him out he was there.”

Velazquez took the Derby victory much the way he took his past Derby failures and bad luck. He never got too high, or too low. Leona Velazquez said her husband told her the day before the Derby that maybe he was meant to win it when he least expected it.

“That’s how it happened when Rags to Riches won it, we weren’t supposed to ride her either,” Leona Velazquez said, referring to the 2007 Belmont Stakes winner who was supposed to be ridden by Garrett Gomez. “Johnny said, ‘Maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be for me,’ not thinking that it would happen the next day.”