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Velazquez hopes to cap comeback year with Breeders' Cup success
ELMONT, N.Y. – “So, what are you planning to do? You going back?”
The questions, posed to him by his wife, Leona, caught John Velazquez by surprise. They came last November, a few weeks after Velazquez was seriously injured in a spill at Santa Anita early on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Among other issues, Velazquez had to undergo surgery to remove his spleen.
“It never came into my head about not going back,” said the 42-year-old Velazquez, who has ridden in the U.S. for 25 years. “I asked her why the question came all of a sudden. She said, ‘I have to know what our plans are. What are we going to do?’ ”
Leona Velazquez said it was the first time she had asked her husband that question. After all, it was the third time in two years Velazquez was injured. In 2012, he fractured his collarbone. In early 2013, he broke a rib and chipped a wrist.
“This one was different because he came within minutes of dying,” Leona Velazquez said. “It probably affected me more because I was the one witnessing it.”
Velazquez told his wife: “I want to give myself a chance. If I’m strong enough and healthy enough to do it, I’m going to do it.”
Velazquez went through physical therapy and weight training and was indeed healthy and strong enough to return. Approximately two months after that conversation with his wife took place in their Long Island, N.Y., home, Velazquez was riding at Gulfstream Park.
It has been a terrific year for Velazquez, who is North America’s all-time leading money earner in purses won. Through Sunday, he has won 140 races from 798 mounts in 2014, and his purse earnings of $15,473,308 rank him fourth in the country. On Oct. 4, he won three Grade 1 races at Keeneland as part of a five-win afternoon. His 26 graded stakes victories – 12 of which are Grade 1s – put him one behind Javier Castellano for the most among North American riders this year.
Velazquez called it a “good year,” one he hopes culminates in two successful days in this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, once again at Santa Anita. Velazquez has mounts in all 13 races, including strong chances with Carpe Diem (Juvenile), Angela Renee (Juvenile Fillies), Stephanie’s Kitten (Filly and Mare Turf), Main Sequence (Turf), and Cigar Street (Classic).
One horse he won’t be riding is Wise Dan, the reigning two-time Horse of the Year, who has won the last two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. As fate would have it, Wise Dan is out with an injury, one that has many of his fans wondering if he is coming back.
Velazquez was aboard Secret Compass in the Juvenile Fillies, the first of the Breeders’ Cup races to be run on a warm, sunny Saturday last year. Velazquez loved the way his filly was traveling, sitting third along the inside entering the far turn.
“She was going so well I thought I was winning the race,” Velazquez said.
Leaving the three-eighths pole, Velazquez heard a pop. And then, he was on the ground. Secret Compass fatally broke down, and Velazquez was on the dirt. He got kicked by a trailing horse.
At first, Velazquez said, the pain was worse in his right knee. There was pressure coming from his ribs, too. His left arm was numb, but Velazquez knew it wasn’t broken.
Paramedics came to assist Velazquez. After a few minutes, he stood and tried to walk to the ambulance. The first step was fine. The second one wasn’t.
“On the way to the ambulance, I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to pass out,’ ” Velazquez recalled.
Ultimately, Velazquez was taken to nearby Huntington Memorial Hospital. A CT scan showed what two sonograms did not. Velazquez was bleeding internally. His spleen was split in half. He had a lacerated kidney. Surgery was performed.
When he awoke after surgery, a groggy Velazquez inquired over and over about how some of the horses he was to ride did. Wise Dan won with Jose Lezcano.
To this day, Velazquez says he has not watched a single race from the 2013 Breeders’ Cup.
“There’s nothing I could do about it, and I’m not going to kill myself and keep dwelling on it,” Velazquez said. “The past is the past, and move on. I can’t change it.”
Velazquez needed to stay in California for nearly 10 days following surgery. The first five days were spent in the hospital. The next five days were spent in a hotel before he was cleared to fly home.
Once home, Velazquez needed to take things slowly for a few weeks before he could begin therapy. He started in New York and continued in south Florida. He ultimately returned to riding Jan. 25, riding three horses at Gulfstream Park.
“No matter how much I work out – five days a week, six days a week, therapies, bike – no matter how much you do that, until you start riding races, you just don’t know how you feel,” Velazquez said.
He felt great. He won his first race of the year Jan. 29. He won his first stakes March 1. He won his first Grade 1 of the year aboard Wise Dan in the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland in April.
Angel Cordero Jr., the Hall of Fame jockey who has been Velazquez’s agent, said he never doubted his jockey would return to race riding.
“It’s hard for an athlete who has been on top to stop unless a doctor makes you,” Cordero said. “I am surprised that he did as well as he has done. I went through the same injuries.”
‘This horse is incredible’
While Velazquez was getting started in January at Gulfstream, Wise Dan’s return to training was delayed by harsh winter weather in Kentucky.
When Charlie LoPresti, Wise Dan’s trainer, met Velazquez in the Keeneland paddock prior to the Maker’s 46 Mile, he told the rider, “I don’t know if he’s going to be tight enough to win.”
Wise Dan won the Maker’s 46 Mile by three-quarters of a length. Three weeks later, on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, Wise Dan was stretched out to 1 1/8 miles in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and was fully extended by Seek Again when prevailing by a head.
“I started thinking this horse is incredible because you know, the winter was so bad, and he couldn’t train, and he comes back and wins two races back to back like that,” Velazquez said. “He’s got to be a special horse.”
Two weeks later, Wise Dan was in an equine hospital after developing a bout of colic. His summer schedule was thrown off kilter.
Wise Dan made it back to the races and won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga by a nose over the longshot Optimizer. Then, he overcame mild trouble to win the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile on Oct. 4 at Keeneland.
After that race, there was some talk about running Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt. Velazquez, when asked his opinion by LoPresti, suggested that they literally stay the course.
Ultimately, Wise Dan was being pointed to an opportunity to three-peat in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. That bid never materialized, as on Oct. 13, it was announced that Wise Dan was out with an ankle injury.
Wise Dan’s racing career is in doubt. Velazquez realizes he may never ride Wise Dan again. He’s okay with that.
“He’s been a lot of fun, he’s been a great thing for us, and we got to be good to him, too,” Velazquez said. “What we keep with this horse is the memories and everything he’s done for us and for the game. Remember, these horses don’t come that often. They’re one in a million.”
For the BC Mile, Velazquez picked up the mount on Grand Arch, the horse who ran second to Wise Dan in the Shadwell.
Coincidentally, due to an injury suffered by fellow rider Rajiv Maragh, Velazquez picked up the mount on Main Sequence in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Main Sequence, like Wise Dan, has won three Grade 1 races on turf this year. If he were to win Saturday, Main Sequence could very well unseat Wise Dan as North America’s turf champion, a title Wise Dan has won the last two years.
“I never thought about it until you just mentioned it,” Velazquez said. “He’s a good horse. He’s done great. I hope he wins because I’m riding him. I just think I picked up a really good horse for a good race.”
A Classic shot
Velazquez has won 12 Breeders’ Cup races but is 0 for 14 in the Classic, finishing second three times.
On Saturday, he will ride Cigar Street, a fragile 5-year-old who has made only eight starts, including two this year. In 2013, Cigar Street won the Grade 3 Skip Away Stakes in his third start before going to the sidelines with bone bruising.
“He’s a really good horse,” Velazquez said. “I think he can do it. Maybe the only downfall we have is you wish you had a couple of races to go fight with the big boys, but he’s definitely a good horse. I think he’s capable of pulling it out.”
Carpe Diem, who won the Breeders’ Futurity, likely will be the second choice in the Juvenile behind stablemate Daredevil. Both are trained by Todd Pletcher. Velazquez has ridden both but was on Carpe Diem on Oct. 4 at Keeneland, and Pletcher kept him on that horse. Angela Renee should be favored in the Juvenile Fillies.
Saez death hits close to home
Velazquez is chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild and a member of the board of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. He has fought vigorously for increased health benefits for riders, and as part of a task force on jockey health and safety, he was successful in getting New York to pass a bill that directed some revenue from casinos to help establish a fund for insurance and health benefits.
On Oct. 14, the 17-year-old jockey Juan Saez was killed in a riding accident at Indiana Grand. Velazquez and his family had become close with Saez during the winter. Velazquez’s mother, Margarita, spent the winter with her son in south Florida. She was a daily visitor to the jockeys’ room. She would play dominoes with Saez almost every day in the Gulfstream Park jocks’ room.
“My mom is suffering as if it was her own son,” John Velazquez said. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks talking to my mom about it. She’s really upset.”
The jockeys riding at this year’s Breeders’ Cup will honor Saez by wearing the initials “JS” on their pants or boots and a black armband. Riders are asked to donate at least one losing mount fee to a fund established to help the Saez family.
“We want to do something for him at the Breeders’ Cup all day long to honor his memory,” Velazquez said. “It can happen to any of us at any moment. My mom reminds me of that and says, ‘Why are you still doing this?’ Because this is what I do, this is what I love, and this is what I chose to do. As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to do it, and hopefully, I can walk out of here one day and look back and say, ‘You know what? I walked out of it healthy and had a great career.’ ”
Had my Spleen removed too John after being crushed. It is painful. No reason to stop as far as I can see though. More in common and a connection John,go. All the best. Mark
He always cooperates with the tracks instructions. And he has made boucoup of dollars. Horse racing likes those kind of jockeys.
I have been playing the ponies for nearly forty years and in three different continents. I have never seen a jockey exude more professionalism and integrity that John Velazquez ! Tough as nails, too. About 23 years ago, I was standing in the old Aqueduct paddock area and Johnny was kicked by a horse. It was a hard blow and many of us standing a few feet away winced in anticipation of the pain. Not Johnny, even though it was in his apprentice year he did not want to go in the ambulance but continue to ride. Over the years, I have bet on Johnny thousands of times and can say I don't think he has ever given me a bad or questionable ride. It will be a very sad day when he hangs up his tack.
Good luck Johnny!
Good luck to you on Breeders Cup Day. You are not only a great rider but also a great family man. Your leadership in the PDJF and Jockey Guild is unquestionable. Continue leading by example as you always have and may your career continue to flourish until you decide to hang them up.