Updated on 09/17/2011 10:57AM

Velez earns notice for ride on Balto Star


OCEANPORT, N.J. - The scene plays out every weekend outside New York and Southern California: a racetrack stages a major stakes and leading national jockeys pour in to ride the top contenders.

Most of the local jockeys, the backbone of the day-in, day-out product, wind up watching the race on television. A lucky few get mounts on the longest shots.

Every once in a while, a local jock connects with one of those outsiders. A case in point: Jose Velez Jr., winner of the Grade 1, $750,000 United Nations Handicap aboard Balto Star on July 5 at Monmouth Park at 37-1 for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Velez, a fixture on the Monmouth-Meadowlands racetrack circuit for the past decade, gave Balto Star a textbook ride. Velez slowed the pace to his advantage and conserved enough horse to secure the biggest win of his career.

Velez, 40, doesn't get a lot Grade 1 opportunities but he has developed a knack of maximizing the chances that come his way.

He almost pulled off a shocker in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Mile, leading until the last jump aboard North East Bound.

"I definitely think he's an underrated rider," said Bill Perry, North East Bound's trainer. "His Breeders' Cup ride on North East Bound was brilliant. He came from the 14th hole and made the lead going to the first turn. I couldn't believe it. He managed to slow it down at the same time. I'm not sure how he did that."

Velez said he believes it starts with the hands.

"You've got to have good hands," Velez said. "And you have to ride with good riders, people who have patience, too."

That patience often works to Velez's benefit.

"He uses his head," Perry said. "I think he really can feel pace, If they're going too fast, he slows it down. If they're going too slow, he's usually on the front end."

Despite the big price, Velez went into U.N. Handicap feeling confident.

"I told my wife I might win this race," Velez said. "I told her I'm the only speed, I'm on a longshot, and no one's going to worry about me."

By spending summers in New Jersey, Velez loses out on choice assignments that might have come his way in New York, where he rode over the winter.

"I don't say it hurts being here," Velez said. "You get a lot of trainers from New York like Todd Pletcher, Mark Hennig, D. Wayne Lukas running here.

"Most of the time, they ask for [Joe] Bravo. If they can't get him, a lot of times I'm one of the second choices."

Rides like the one Velez delivered on Balto Star are bound to generate more interest in his services.

"People notice rides like that," Perry said. "I'm sure that will help him."

High-percentage trainer Rice is running two

Trainer Linda Rice wins races at a very solid 17 percent clip overall.

The Rice numbers at Monmouth are absolutely golden: 12 winners from 28 starters, a robust 43 percent win rate.

Rice will be busy Sunday with runners in both $50,000 stakes: the Elkwood at 1 1/16 miles on the turf and the Candy Eclair for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs.

Rice sends out Spruce Run in the Elkwood.

Like many turf horses in the area, Spruce Run had to bide his time waiting for the long siege of rain to stop.

"We were struggling to get him on the grass for about six weeks," Rice said from her Belmont Park barn. "We were getting a little desperate so we ran him on Belmont Stakes Day on a very, very soft course."

Spruce Run ran fourth in that allowance race. He caught a firm course for his next start at Monmouth and responded with a game try to run second, beaten less than a length.

"It was a good effort and he really likes the course," Rice said.

Completing the field are American Freedom, Sir Brian's Sword, Magical Madness, Run to Victory, Crash Course, Union Place, Devine Wind, Bail Out the King, and Autonomy.

Rice has Electrick City in the Candy Eclair, a race that also attracted Home Run Hitter, Reign of Tara, Holiday Runner, Follow Me Home, Travelator, Uphill Skier, and Trupon On.

- The Summer X-Games demonstration rolls into Monmouth Sunday. Professional in-line skaters and freestyle bicyclists will put on a show on a 40-foot inverted skating ramp.

The X-Games demonstration highlights Family Fun Day, which includes clowns, pony rides, and face painters.