By Ed McNamara
Breaking into a major circuit is usually a serious challenge for a jockey. You must cultivate new relationships with trainers and getting prime mounts early on is difficult. But not if your name is John Velazquez.
The 50-year-old Hall of Famer blasted out of the gate Dec. 26 on opening day at Santa Anita, winning with his first three rides and adding a stakes victory on Bob Baffert’s 3-year-old filly Kalypso in the Grade 1 La Brea.
That began an insane run for Velazquez, who finished first with nine of his first 17 mounts at The Great Race Place. He celebrated New Year’s Eve early with a 4-for-5 afternoon, and his 12-for-27 surge led the standings after five days. Seven of his winners are trained by Baffert, including the 3-year-old colt Newgrange, who led throughout the mile Sham Stakes (G3) on Jan. 1.
“You know Johnny V. is great to begin with,” Baffert said. “He’s like Tom Brady. He’s very wise and he doesn’t panic. He rides his horse. That’s why he’s a great one.”
Velazquez has excelled at Gulfstream Park since the Nineties, but for the first time he will spend the winter in Southern California, not South Florida. He’ll be based in SoCal through April 9, the day of the Santa Anita Derby (G1), with occasional forays to stakes around the country.
Superstar agent Ron Anderson books the horses for Velazquez, a four-time Kentucky Derby (G1) champion, including the last two (Authentic, Medina Spirit) with Baffert. No one ever rode three straight Derby winners, and maybe Newgrange will give him a chance.
“Overall, Johnny is in a league by himself,” Anderson said. “He’s without a doubt one of the greatest riders we’ve seen in a very, very long time.”
It will be impossible for him to keep winning at this pace, but until he cools off, it will be foolish to dismiss anything he rides. Velazquez has seven mounts Saturday at Santa Anita, and he has a big chance on the undefeated Cal-bred Big Switch in the Santa Ynez Stakes (G2). Maybe she’ll develop into a prospect for the Kentucky Oaks (G1), which Velazquez won last year on Malathaat.
$200,000 Santa Ynez (G2), 7 furlongs, 3-year-old fillies
both starts, including a 12 1/5-second final furlong last time. Her finishing punch should work well against her five rivals, four of whom have shown early speed.
The main danger may be Baffert’s Under The Stars (1), who broke her maiden in her third start. Another possibility is Awake
At Midnyte (5), turning back a furlong and switching to dirt for Doug O’Neill after being nosed out in a Grade 3 on turf.
Let’s try to hit a Velazquez late double with a mystery horse making her North American debut. Johnny V. rides Chantal (5), who was 0-for-4 in France and hasn’t run since June. Maybe she’ll run big, or maybe she’ll be up the track, but she’s been in the money three times, and she gets first-time Lasix. Anderson is on such a roll picking live horses that I’m willing to take a stab with her.
Urban (8), also 0-for-4, and Irish shipper Precocious Times (4) also could improve with first-time Lasix.
Likely favorite Largent (1) was first or second in his last 10 races and is 4-for-6 on the Gulfstream grass. He’s clearly the most accomplished horse in a weak field, but he hasn’t run since finishing second in the Pegasus Turf last January.
If he’s prepping for another try at that Grade 1 on Jan. 29, Todd Pletcher probably won’t have him fully cranked, which may not matter. Only Value Proposition (4) looks like a serious opponent, and Pletcher wins with 27% of his layoffs of 90 days or more. Likely front-runner Flying Scotsman could hang on for third.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.