Saratoga: Velazquez back in racing shape, will return Wednesday
SARATOGA SPRINGS John Velazquez is going to take it slow on his return to the races.
That is, as far as the number of mounts he takes per day early on. Once he’s in the irons, expect the same man who has ridden to 4,829 career wins, 655 at Saratoga Race Course.
Velazquez will ride in two races Wednesday, his first competitive action since breaking his collarbone in a fall June 16 at Churchill Downs. He said his physical therapy and the morning exercise rides he’s had for the last week and a half at Saratoga have gotten him fit to race.
“Actually, I have no discomfort, right now,” he said. “It’s been a week and a half that I’ve been back on the horses, so it’s strong. I’m getting my rhythm and everything with the horses. I’m feeling very confident the way I’m coming into the races.”
Velazquez, who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in August, will climb aboard Lucky Friend in Wednesday’s fifth race and Stephanie’s Kitten for the Grade II $200,000 Lake George in the ninth race.
After breaking his collarbone, Velazquez said he would undoubtedly return to racing. He worked with his physical therapists, received acupuncture treatment and a machine that helps the collarbone repair itself.
“I don’t know what you call it [the machine],” he said. “The football players use it to stimulate the blood going to the bone or whatever, and it’s supposed to give you better growth of the collarbone and around the collarbone, too. Whatever they told me to do, I did it.”
He got the OK to begin riding again, and started looking for exercise assignments in the mornings.
“He started getting back on horses for us Monday, and he’s been on one or two every day since,” trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Velazquez has been the first-call rider for Pletcher, who has barns full of top horses always waiting for a top rider. The pair has formed many intimidating entries through their partnership, and will team up again with Lucky Friend.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Pletcher said. “He’s been riding for us a long time, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability. We’re, first of all, happy that he’s healthy and OK. That’s the most important thing. But we’re happy to have him back in the saddle, as well.”
The lack of lingering pain and a week and a half of exercise riding has provided a good measure of confidence for Velazquez. A few days of riding competitively should gear him up well for the weekend’s bigger races, but he said that’s not why he’s coming back mid-week. It’s just a happy coincidence.
“This was the target, anyway,” he said. “I got the go-ahead to start working out [last Monday]. It was the goal to work into it little by little. We thought Wednesday would be perfect. It just worked out this way. I just wanted to be ready to ride races, whether it’s the weekend or not.”
Velazquez’s 655 wins at Saratoga are second only to Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey’s 693, but Velazquez said he isn’t going to focus on passing Bailey. If it happens, it happens, but without taking as many mounts as he normally would early in the meet, winning 39 times will be tough to do.
His past two meets here, Velazquez has been the top jockey, winning 54 times last year and 57 times in 2010. He set the record of 65 wins in 2004, breaking his previous record of 61, set in 2003.
This year, he said with the head start he’s given the other riders in the colony — many of them perennial contenders for the title — he will not be able to catch up. Riding only a few horses each day early on, he’ll be content to be riding at Saratoga and easing back into a more full schedule.
“No, definitely not. It’s going to take me at least a week or a week and a half before I’m riding more than two horses a day,” Velazquez said. “I’m just happy to be here and riding. That’s my main goal, that I’m here, I’m riding and not missing the meet. I want to be a part of it. Hopefully, I can get some of my horses back. I’m just happy to be here, really.”