07/22/2002 12:00AM

Velazquez ready for catch-Bailey-if-you-can


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In 2001 at Saratoga, John Velazquez played Sammy Sosa to Jerry Bailey's Mark McGwire.

While both riders broke the Saratoga record for wins in a meet, Velazquez's 52 victories fell three short of Bailey's 55. It was Bailey's third straight Saratoga riding title and his seventh in the last eight years.

Included in Velazquez's total was the first six-win day recorded by a jock at Saratoga, which Velazquez accomplished on closing day. Still, it took some reflection for Velazquez to appreciate the feat.

"It was a little bittersweet," said Velazquez, a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico. "It kind of took a couple of days to sink in. I was more focused on getting the title than winning six races, so I didn't enjoy it right away. But, it was very special. My wife helped me appreciate it. She said a meet is something you can always get, six wins not everybody is going to get it."

Velazquez already has a Saratoga riding title. But even that was a bit hollow. Velazquez finished the 1998 meet with 31 wins, one more than Mike Smith, who missed the final week of the meet because of injury.

"I got the title, but at the same time it was not the way you'd like to have won it," Velazquez said.

In 2000, Velazquez's fate was similar to Smith's in 1999. After winning a meet-leading 10 races from his first 48 mounts, Velazquez suffered a cracked vertebra in a spill on Aug. 5 and missed the remainder of the meet.

"I thought that was going to be the meet I could win," Velazquez said. "I had 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, grass horses, older horses. I thought I had a good opportunity to win it. We had so much business."

The accident was a bit scary for Velazquez, who said he still can't remember things that happened days before and days after the accident. At age 30, Velazquez said, "it's too young not to be able to remember things."

Velazquez has certainly had more than his share of memorable moments the last two years. In 2001, he won 305 races and his mounts earned more than $15 million. This year, Velazquez has 160 wins from 775 mounts and earnings of $7,298,239, sixth best in the country. Bailey, of course, is the leader in money won with $12.2 million.

Velazquez enters this Saratoga meet - which opens Wednesday - as arguably the hottest rider in the country. Since June 30, Velazquez has won 27 races from 90 mounts (.30 winning percentage) including five stakes. In the last three weeks of the Belmont meet, he went 25 for 85 and finished the meet with 58 wins, 12 more than Edgar Prado. Sunday, at Delaware Park, he won the $600,000 Delaware Handicap aboard Summer Colony.

Despite the momentum, Velazquez said everything starts fresh on Wednesday. Last year, he won the Belmont title with 66 wins and still could not unseat Bailey. "I don't think it matters," he said. "It goes meet by meet. It goes week by week, you could ride really nice horses one week, the next week you're not riding anything decent."

This summer, Velazquez could be in a position to win a meet-long, head-to-head battle with Bailey. As always, Bailey will be the first-call rider for Bill Mott, who has won or shared in eight of the last 10 training titles here. Mott is coming off a sub-par Belmont meet and may not be as stocked as in years past. Bailey's ace-in-the hole is Bobby Frankel, who could be sitting on a huge meet.

Velazquez, meanwhile, is the main rider for Todd Pletcher, who won the Belmont title with 30 wins, the most wins by a trainer during the Belmont spring/summer meet since Gary Sciacca won 31 in 1993.

Velazquez said he has great admiration and appreciation for Bailey, who at age 44 reminds Velazquez of how Angel Cordero - Velazquez's mentor and agent - was when he won 11 consecutive Saratoga riding titles in the late 70's and 80's.

"He rides all the good horses and everybody's looking for him first," Velazquez said. "You can't take anything away from him. He is who he is because he's been around for a long time, and he's a great jockey like Angel was."

Velazquez is hopeful, if not confident, he can win the title. "I'm going to do my best and hopefully everything clicks and hopefully we choose the right horses," Velazquez said.