Saratoga Notebook: Velazquez winningest jockey
SARATOGA SPRINGS After 15 years of riding for trainer Todd Pletcher and becoming the first-call rider for the best barn of the last decade, it was fitting jockey John Velazquez broke the all-time win record at Saratoga Race Course aboard a Pletcher-trained horse on Saturday.
“I definitely want to say thank you to Todd for all his support throughout the years,” Velazquez said. “Since 1998, I’ve been riding for him, and we’re still going. I want to thank my family, without whose support, I wouldn’t be able to do this. And I have to thank the fans. The fans have been great to me. Thank you for your support. Thank you, everyone. I appreciate it, and hope to win many more.”
“Amazing,” Pletcher said. “He’s been really good for a long time. This is Johnny’s moment.”
The win moves Velazquez to nine at this meet.
He brought home Unitarian in the fourth race, an $85,000 maiden race over 1 3/16 miles on the Mellon turf, notching career win No. 694 at the track and passing fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey.
“It’s a big number, I have to say that,” Velazquez said. “Just to be named with Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero, in my eyes — obviously, I’m a little biased when it comes to Angel — they are two of the best riders I’ve ever seen in my career. I’m humbled, and I’m happy.”
“You have to avoid injury, you have to avoid suspension, especially here at this meet, and you have to be very, very good for an extended period of time,” Bailey said. “It’s hard be leading rider here for one meet, much less meet after meet after meet. And if you aren’t, you’ve got to be pretty close up there to set a record like this.”
Bailey won 693 races here at a time when the meet ran for just a couple dozen days. Now, it runs for 40 days each summer. Bailey said none of that should matter.
“You don’t need to quantify it, you don’t need to balance it,” he said. “It’s a great accomplishment.”
Cordero, Velazquez’s mentor and agent, has an official total of 459, but that does not count the races he won before 1976, when NYRA started keeping track.
“That’s a lot of winners, and he should be proud,” Cordero said of Velazquez’s total, “because this is the meeting that everyone wants to win at.”
Velazquez kept Unitarian in striking distance, riding in fifth until starting his move entering the far turn as some of the leaders began to back up. He guided Unitarian around Mr. Janney and jockey Joel Rosario before pulling ahead of Parnelli and jockey Luis Saez in the last half-furlong to win by a half-length.
All the jockeys joined Velazquez in the winner’s circle for a brief ceremony. The track will eventually have a plaque on the grounds listing the all-time winners here, a list that at least for a good long while will be topped by Velazquez.
After him, Bailey and Cordero, Edgar Prado checks in with 433, and Pat Day rounds out the top five with 399.
With the quality of racing at Saratoga and the number of top-flight jockeys in the riders’ colony, Bailey said he believes this is the toughest track at which to achieve such a feat.
“I’m probably going to get blowback from the West Coast, but because everybody comes from Kentucky and New Jersey and
Chicago, if not for the whole meet, for part of the meet, it’s the toughest meet in the country, maybe other than Keeneland,” Bailey said. “But this is a longer meet, for you have to do it for a longer period of time, you have to be successful here. So, yeah, it’s the toughest place, in my mind, in the country to do something like that.”
Rosario, riding his first full meet at Saratoga and sitting in second place in the riders’ race, spoke last week about riding in the same colony as Velazquez.
“You learn from him because he’s a really good jockey,” Rosario said. “He’s a really smart jockey in a race. He’s been riding longer than I have, so every time he rides a race, I’ll look and see what he does different. Jerry Bailey was a great rider, and to be here with these guys and riding, I feel proud of myself.”
Bailey called Velazquez the best position rider in the game.
“Johnny is always, when you look up, it seems like he’s always in a position to win,” he said. “I think I was a position rider. You get a position mid-pack or forward, you’re not a dead closer, you’re not a front-running rider. He always has his horse in a position to win if the horse is good enough, and that’s all you can ask from a rider, and I think he’s the best at it.”
WISE DAN VERY SHARP
As befits a reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan got some special treatment from the New York Racing Association on Saturday morning and took full advantage of it with a sizzling work in preparation for the Aug. 10 Fourstardave.
Trainer Charlie LoPresti was allowed to send Wise Dan out to the turf course at the Oklahoma training track by himself at 9:45.
He would have stood out even if there was a crowd of horses out there, ripping five furlongs in 57.38.
The breeze was so productive and eye-opening that LoPresti said Wise Dan is as fit as can be and won’t need another breeze next weekend.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him,” LoPresti said. “This was the work I was looking for. If he worked real slow or something, I might’ve had to come back and do something else with him, but this looks like it’s going to put me right where I want to be.”
Before the work, LoPresti said he was looking for a minute flat for the five furlongs.
Under regular exercise rider Damien Rock, the 6-year-old gelding snapped through that portion of the work much more quickly, then galloped out in 1:09 for six furlongs, 1:22 and change for seven and 1:37 for the mile before Rock pulled him up.
Wise Dan came off the track barely breaking a sweat, and when LoPresti asked Rock, “Is he blowing?” the rider replied,
“The plan probably was to get closer to 59,” Rock said. “I thought I was going 58 and change, because he just did it effortlessly. He’s so hard to judge when he’s got that huge stride. Once he starts going 11’s [seconds per furlong] like that, pretty much you’ve got to sit there and let him go, because that’s when he’s comfortable.”
“I would’ve liked for him to go in about a minute, but that turf is not real soft right now,” LoPresti said. “I don’t worry about him. He does it the way he wants to do it. You can’t make him do things that you want him to do. He wasn’t fighting him one bit.”
REMATCH IN AMSTERDAM
The Grade II $200,000 Amsterdam today will serve as a rematch for Forty Tales and Declan’s Warrior, who finished 1-2 in the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont on June 8, separated by three-quarters of a length.
Forty Tales is 4-1-0 in six starts for Petcher, and Declan’s Warrior is 4-2-0 in six starts for Hall of Famer Nick Zito. Forty Tales is the 2-1 morning-line favorite, and Declan’s Warrior is the second choice at 5-2.
“He just tries all the time,” Zito said. “It was really sad last time. Not taking anything away from Forty Tales, because, obviously, he won the Derby Trial, so he’s a pretty good horse. It looked like they were going to hit the wire together, and that other horse came right in front of him, and he had to alter course. That was a little disappointing, but he’s a good horse. I hope everything goes good for him.”