05/01/2007 11:00PM

Velazquez had wealth of options


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A year ago, jockey John Velazquez was in the unfortunate position of having to watch the Kentucky Derby on television, sidelined by a broken shoulder suffered in a spill at Keeneland.

For this year's Derby, Velazquez was in the unique position of having to choose one of five horses he had ridden - and won at least one race on - for his main trainer, Todd Pletcher. In the end, Velazquez selected Louisiana Derby winner Circular Quay over Scat Daddy, Any Given Saturday, Cowtown Cat, and Sam P. for Saturday's 133rd Derby.

Velazquez, who is winless with eight prior Derby mounts, said he selected Circular Quay because of the colt's success over the Churchill Downs strip - he's 2 for 3 - and the courage the horse showed the two times he rode him this winter in Louisiana.

Circular Quay, a son of 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch, won a maiden race and the Grade 3 Bashford Manor - both with Rafael Bejarano in the irons - last summer at Churchill. Garrett Gomez was aboard Circular Quay when he finished second, 10 lengths behind Street Sense, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall at Churchill.

Velazquez, 35, first rode Circular Quay in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 10. Circular Quay was cruising behind horses approaching the top of the stretch when a horse in front of him, Slew's Tizzy, unseated his rider. Velazquez had to quickly snatch up Circular Quay to avoid the fallen rider and guide him from the rail to the center of the track.

Ordinarily, Velazquez would simply have pulled the horse up. But when he got Circular Quay in the clear, the horse was not done.

"I went to pull him up and he showed he wanted to run," Velazquez said. "I tapped him on the shoulder, he wanted to go again, and he ended up catching up to horses. He showed me he's a very courageous horse. . . . He showed me he can do anything."

Velazquez rode Circular Quay back in the Louisiana Derby, and the horse launched a strong five-furlong bid to rally from 12 lengths off the pace and win by 2 1/4 lengths.

"He proved to me what he showed me the last eighth of a mile [in the Risen Star] was true," Velazquez said.

Though Circular Quay was scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial, Pletcher opted to skip that race, believing the horse would benefit from more time between races. The eight-week layoff Circular Quay will have coming into the Derby may be a red flag to handicappers, but not to Velazquez. In other words, in Todd he trusts.

"He's the trainer - he knows what he's doing," Velazquez said. "I'm not going to question him, that's for sure."

Velazquez had some help in making his decision. His agent is the Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who also works as an exercise rider for Pletcher. In fact, during the Gulfstream meet, Cordero surrendered his jockey agent's license to get an exercise rider's license, which allowed him access to the paddock and winner's circle. He is the work rider for Circular Quay, Scat Daddy, and Any Given Saturday.

Cordero is a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, including the 1974 running - the one that had 23 horses in it - in which he guided Cannonade from well off the pace to win. While Cordero doesn't liken Circular Quay to Cannonade, he does believe Circular Quay's come-from-behind style can win the Derby.

"He'll probably walk out of the gate; even if he's back, that won't hurt him," said Cordero. "He's not going to find traffic until the five-eighths pole or the half-mile pole, and at that point the horses begin to spread out and he should be able to pick up the pace. I've seen a lot of horses win the Derby from behind. I think he has the power, like a boxer, to knock them out."

By electing to ride Circular Quay, Velazquez is giving up the chance to ride some very talented runners. Edgar Prado rides Scat Daddy, Garrett Gomez is on Any Given Saturday, Fernando Jara pilots Cowtown Cat, and Ramon Dominguez has the call on Sam P.

Velazquez rode Scat Daddy to four of his five career victories, including last year's Grade 1 Champagne and this year's Grade 2 Fountain of Youth; he beat Nobiz Like Shobiz in both of those races. Velazquez rode Any Given Saturday to a win in the Sam Davis and a nose loss to Street Sense in the Tampa Bay Derby.

"[Scat Daddy] hasn't done anything wrong," Velazquez said. "He's very consistent. I think he's going to be really tough in the Derby, and so is Any Given Saturday. The only thing with Any Given Saturday is he's had two hard races back to back. The three horses I think are very capable to win it all. It's all about having the best trip. I can't ride them all."

Velazquez won two sprint races on Cowtown Cat but suggested to Pletcher that the horse might be better suited to going long. Since then, Cowtown Cat has won the Gotham and Illinois Derby, both around two turns.

"That's another horse with great talent, but I just didn't know if he might be late for the dance," Velazquez said. "But he showed us that he needed the distance to improve."

Velazquez rode Sam P. to two victories last year but basically lost touch with the horse when Sam P. raced twice in California this spring.

Velazquez said that he and Cordero discussed which horse to ride, and that 90 percent of the time he defers to Cordero. This time, both identified Circular Quay as their Derby horse.

Although Velazquez finished second in the 2001 Derby with Invisible Ink, he has finished last or second-to-last with five of his eight Derby mounts. Obviously he hopes he has chosen the right horse this year, but Velazquez said if he doesn't win the Derby, he wants to see one of Pletcher's other horses win.

"If he wins it, I'll be really happy because he's been extremely good to me," Velazquez said of Pletcher. "I know he's going to win it someday, with me or without me."