By Ed McNamara
The gates opened for the Kentucky Oaks, and within seconds John Velazquez had to abandon Plan A.
“The strategy was to break well and get a good position,” he said. “When that didn’t happen, we had to change it right away.”
Velazquez didn’t panic when 5-2 favorite Malathaat came out a step slow and got jostled around three strides into the race.
“I was concerned,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “I thought Johnny made a key decision to quickly get her in position after that. He had to lose some ground and go wide to do it, but it was the right thing to do. It was a great ride.”
Malathaat outdueled Search Results down the stretch for a neck victory to improve to 5-for-5. A day later, Velazquez scored with 12-1 shot Medina Spirit to become the first rider in 12 years to hit the Oaks-Kentucky Derby double. On Saturday (May 15) he’ll be at Pimlico, going for his first Preakness victory.
(Medina Spirit’s post-race test from the Derby came back positive for a regulated anti-inflammatory and the horse could be disqualified pending a second sample).
Plan A for the Derby was to break well, then wait to see where presumed front-runner Rock Your World and Joel Rosario were positioned going into the crucial first turn. When they broke slowly and were sandwiched at the start, their race was over. Advantage, Velazquez, who capitalized immediately.
“Johnny was surprised when he saw Joel wasn’t there,” said Ron Anderson, the agent for both riders. “So, he stayed in front and had everybody in his wake.”
Medina Spirit never was caught, giving Velazquez his fourth Derby trophy, trainer Bob Baffert his record seventh, and their second together in the past two runnings.
“He’s so cool, he’s so smart,” Baffert said. “He’s such a professional. Johnny knew exactly what he was going to do.”
Like Velazquez, NBC analyst Jerry Bailey is a Hall of Famer because of smarts and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After the Derby, Bailey called him “the greatest position rider I’ve ever seen, and the greatest tactician.”
Two world-famous races, two brilliant rides by a guy six months away from turning 50.
“Johnny is like any really great athlete who’s able to just think and adjust under the utmost pressure,” Anderson said. “The things they do, the split-second decisions, they’re instinctive.”
Anderson compared Velazquez to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, but while MJ and Tiger are famously arrogant and self-absorbed, Velazquez is no aloof superstar. He’s a generous giver who has spent 20 years as chairman of The Jockeys’ Guild and 15 years as a driving force behind the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
A recent Facebook post by Josue Arce is particularly poignant. In 2003, Arce, a recent arrival from Puerto Rico, wanted to become a jockey in Florida but couldn’t afford the equipment.
“I met this guy John Velazquez and told him my plan,” Arce wrote. “Later that day he gives me a signed blank check and tells me to go to the tack shop, buy what I need and don’t be concerned about what it cost. Many times, I tried to pay him back, but he told me it was a gift.
“I always wonder what would have happened back then if he hadn’t helped me accomplish my dream.
“Thank you always, Mr. John Velazquez.”
Arce recently became a trainer at Parx following a 15-year riding career. Velazquez said, “he’s always in contact with me,” and that he thinks of him as one of his kids.
“Johnny is so attentive and caring,” Anderson said. “For him to write a check to help somebody get started, without even really knowing the person, that just shows you who he is.”
The brotherhood of the saddle can be a fellowship of pain, and Velazquez has endured more than his share. Besides having his spleen removed after a 2013 spill, he’s had a lacerated kidney, fractured shoulder, fractured ribs and a broken collarbone.
That suffering has made him sensitive to the pain of others. After winning last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic on Derby hero Authentic, Velazquez choked up while speaking about his mother-in-law’s battle with cancer. “She has a great attitude,” he said. “She inspired me to do this.”
Anderson said Joan O’Brien’s struggle is ongoing, and Velazquez mentioned it again after the Derby.
He has collaborated for many years with Terry Meyocks, president and CEO of the Jockeys’ Guild. Meyocks said they’ll sometimes discuss Guild issues four or five times a day. “Johnny puts in a lot of time because he really cares about it,” he said.
Meyocks is a former president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, and his daughter Abby is married to Hall of Fame rider Javier Castellano. Meyocks was rooting hard for his son-in-law, who’s 0-for-15 in the Derby after finishing 10th on Highly Motivated. Velazquez’s triumph eased that disappointment.
“The Derby was spectacular,” Meyocks said. “That’s Johnny, he always has his horse in a great position to win. But he’s a very humble and grounded person. I talked to him after the race and the next day, and he was excited, but that’s as far as it gets. He doesn’t let success go to his head. I’m so impressed with what he’s accomplished and how he’s dealt with it.”
His achievements fill three pages in the NYRA media guide, and you can get eyestrain trying to read them all. Besides the North American earnings record ($435.8 million) and the four Derby wins, one short of the record shared by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, Velazquez has won two Belmont Stakes and 18 Breeders’ Cup races. He earned the Eclipse Award in 2004 and 2005, and in 2009 his peers voted him the coveted George Woolf Award for exemplary conduct on and off the racetrack.
“Other riders look up to him,” Meyocks said. “He’s respected throughout the country and throughout the world.”
Instead of being full of himself, the grateful Velazquez marvels that his 32-year career has peaked again this late in the game.
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity that Bob (Baffert) has given me,” he said. “The opportunity doesn’t come very often for a man the age I am now.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would win four Derbies. But I never look at numbers, leading money-earner or most Grade 1 stakes wins. I never looked at it like that. It’s not a thing for me.
“It’s a job. I take pride in what I do. I like to do very well, and it has been a blessing.”
Velazquez is a link in the golden chain of Puerto Rican jockeys. All-time great Angel Cordero, Jr., his mentor, was his longtime agent until Anderson replaced him early last year. Cordero, a tsunami on horseback, saw great potential in the 18-year-old Velazquez, who learned English in 1990 by watching “The Little Mermaid” day after day with Angel’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter Canela.
The Ortiz brothers, Irad Jr. and Jose, continue the tradition. Jose, 27, earned the 2017 Eclipse, and Irad, 28, won the last three. They go way back with Velazquez, who’s in a photo with them when they were 10 and 11.
Irad was on Search Results in the Oaks, which he’s never won, and they were leading before Malathaat went by approaching the eighth pole. Having a classic snatched away was brutal, and Ortiz’s display of sportsmanship was surprising and touching. Just after the wire he reached over with his right hand and patted Velazquez on the back, saluting the old master, his role model since childhood.
Johnny V. was moved.
“Irad is a champion himself, and he’s like my son, too,” Velazquez said. “He and Jose were two kids coming out of Puerto Rico looking up to me.
“Irad’s reaction was priceless. It was very sweet of him. It was a great moment, and I really appreciated it.”
For once, second didn’t feel like the first loser. If defeat can ever be sweet, this one was.
“It was something very special, honestly,” Ortiz told NYRA paddock analyst Maggie Wolfendale. “Johnny is the kind of person you just want to be around. I’ve got so much respect for him.
“After the wire, whatever happened, it came from my heart.”
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.