John Velazquez: Award-winning Jockey

[image url=""]John Velazquez[/image]

A little over a week after he guided Rags to Riches to an historic victory in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), jockey John Velazquez will take questions from racing fans when he is the guest on a special edition of’s Talkin’ Horses online chat. The chat will be held at noon, Tuesday, June 19.

Not only did Rags to Riches become the first filly Belmont winner in more than 100 years, she also delivered the first Triple Crown race success for Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher. Those two have become one of the most successful tandems in North American racing history, and since 1996 (through June 9, Belmont day) they had won 797 races (28% wins from 2,896 starts) together. They have combined for 184 stakes wins, including 125 graded stakes wins.

A native of Puerto Rico, 35-year-old Velazquez entered jockey school in his native country in June 1988 and began riding competitively 1 ½ years later. Since 1998 Velazquez has been represented by fellow native Puerto Rican and Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero, who is also involved in Pletcher’s training operation.

The top rider at 20 different New York track meets, he has been honored with two Eclipse Awards—in 2004 and 2005.

In addition to Rags to Riches, among the other top horses he has ridden have been champions Ashado, Speightstown, and  Leroidesanimaux, as well as grade I winners Roses in May (Dubai World Cup), Flower Alley (Travers), English Channel, Henny Hughes, Honey Ryder, and Scat Daddy.

Velazquez is married to Leona, the daughter of New York-based trainer Leo O’Brien, and they have two children.

Manchester KY:
Hey Johnny V., I was wondering where Roses in May's win in Dubai ranks in your eyes among all your wins? Also who was the best horse you have ever ridden?

Roses in May's win in Dubai definitely ranked as one of my most exciting wins ever. As for the best horse, they are all different and all important and special to me, especially in the big races.

Camas, WA:
What a wonderful ride in the Belmont, Johnny! Thank Garrett for us ladies too. I know there are people who feel strongly that whipping should be outlawed, Monty Roberts for one, and he's worked with a lot of Thoroughbreds including the world's #1 ranked Alleged. On the other hand, I've read that many jockeys believe that whipping is necessary for safety. How do you feel? How does whipping help safety? Thanks, Shari

I can you tell this. The whip is needed and we use it when it is necessary. In the case of safety, we need whips to keep the horses in as straight a line as possible and to avoid injury to themselves and riders. For example, I rode a horse recently who bolted to the outside fence. The only thing that prevented him from jumping or hitting the outside fence was my whip.

John, what was the loudest crowd you ever heard, turning for home?

To tell you the truth, at least for me, when turning for home we are so caught up in the moment of riding, we don’t hear anything. Particularly when you are caught up in a big race and are about to win it. If you hear the crowd it is because you are not in the race. I concentrate on what I’m supposed to do. When you are coming down the lane and are fighting to win the race, you are trying to make the best out of the race.

Elmont, NY:
Do you believe that if Rags to Riches gets the chance to run against older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, she would have a genuine chance of winning?

She proved she could run with the boys and win, so I think she has a genuine chance. She has shown she can run against the boys, the 3-year-olds, and those who would be older horses. It’s always possible she can do that too. It’s not like I am saying she is going to.

Alameda, CA:
Why shouldn't jockeys be willing to donate a small percentage of their winning graded stakes purses to the Disabled Jockeys' Fund and support each other?

We do donate money, not only the graded races but from all the races. Just because you don’t hear about it or read about it doesn’t mean we don’t do it. We do it – in New York, Chicago, California, Florida, Kentucky. The guys who do well do donate money, and sometimes we just donate it straight to the person who needs it the most.

Toronto, Ontario:
What is your favorite turf course to ride on? Jeff

I like them all if I can win on them. It helps when the horse likes the course.

Marco Island, FL:
Hello John, Congrats on your recent Belmont victory. I asked a question of another great rider at this forum regarding one the most difficult aspects of race riding, and his answer was trying to determine what the other riders strategy is when in the heat of the contest; how do you know how to place a horse in all the frenzy? What is the single element to consider when making split second determinations?

I prepare for any kind of scenario. You definitely have to be prepared when you go out there. If you don't do your homework you can't be prepared for all the different decisions you have to make out there. You have to be prepared to change your mind in a split second. I do it for every race. I don't care what kind of race it is. I always look at what could happen, what should happen, and what kind of surprises I am going to get. And if you are right 30% of the time or 40% of the time, you are ahead of the game. We still make mistakes and there are things that are out of our hands. But I want to know.

Ontario, Canada:
Nice to see you at Woodbine in Toronto the day after the Belmont win. I was interested to know your feelings on this track?

I always like going there. They have been very good to me. I like anywhere I go that I can win a race.

Overland Park, KS:
How confident were you going into the Belmont that you had a shot to win when many fans doubted Rags to Riches ability to pull it off?

I definitely liked this filly a lot and she had a really good chance. And she showed it.

Roswell, GA:
I was at Keeneland when you experienced a terrible spill. I know all of the fans were so concerned about you. I am so happy to see you back in the saddle and doing so well. My question is: I know it must be difficult for a jockey to not only experience the pain of a bad fall, but to lose so many of your good mounts while you are out recovering. Was that a difficult adjustment for you? I was thrilled to see you once again at the top of the game as you won the Belmont on Rags to Riches. Congratulations and I hope you are feeling great!!

It is always a difficult adjustment for anybody who has an accident. You have to think about healing and hopefully be able to come back and ride again as well as you did before. I didn’t lose a whole lot, and 85%-90% of the horses I was riding I was able to get back after I was fit.

Columbus, OH:
Hey John! Thanks for taking our questions today and Congratulations on Rags to Riches. My question is we saw you run at the Ohio Derby with Cowtown Cat and it seemed he just didn't fire at the end of the race. What do you think happened that day and where do you think he will be pointed towards next?

He just did not fire at all and came back little bit sick. It probably was something that was building up. But that is a question for the trainer.

North Andover MA:
How valuable was your discussion with Garrett Gomez prior to riding Rags to Riches?

I had watched her race every time, so I knew her different styles. But it definitely is always valuable to get insight into the horse’s temperament.

Newark DE:
Congratulations on a great riding career. Do you have a minimum purse amount or type of class race, that you won't ride in?

I ride in all kinds of races. I ride every horse possible. The horse could be a $5,000 claimer and I would happy to ride him.

Lauderdale, MN:
Congratulations on a fabulous Belmont. Two questions: When weight allowances get so low that no rider can make them, what sense do they make? Do we need a change in the scale of weights? Also, how much conversation is there between riders during a race? Are some jockeys more talkative than others? Thanks.

I think raising the scale of weights is way overdue. It definitely needs to be raised a little bit, which has been done in some states.  There is not much conversation between jockeys, unless you are cursing somebody out.

Providence RI:
John, this Belmont was the most thrilling one I have been to. CONGRATS!! You said your first thought when she tripped out of the gate was that you hoped she was ok and you hoped she didn't throw a shoe. At what point did you realize she was ok and you could concentrate on winning??

As soon as we got to the first turn, she switched leads and she seemed like she was going comfortable. That’s when I knew she was OK. After that I had to concentrate and ride the race. When that happens, you have to snap out of it and go back to what you are supposed to be doing.

Juan Carlos Feijoo Venezuela:
Hi John. Congratulations from Venezuela. We talked two years ago in Puerto Rico and you told about your goal in order to win the Kentucky Derby. I want to know if you will go to Puerto Rico to participate in Clasico del Caribe this year?

I don’t know; I am still waiting for an invitation.

Southern Pines, NC:
I definitely want to say congrats on the Belmont win- it's great for you and Todd Pletcher to finally win one. I was at the rail and it was amazing! However, since you're on the road most of the year, do you ever get to spend time with your family?

I do spend time with my family and every chance I get I am fortunate enough to take time off to do so. They go to Florida the whole time I’m there in the winter. The only time they don’t go with me is when I am in Kentucky for 4 ½ weeks. But I do travel home every Monday and Tuesday then.

Cedar Rapids, IA:
Mr. Velazquez, Congratulations on your Belmont win! It was much deserved!! I am a huge fan of yours and Angel Cordero also! You two seem to have a very special relationship. Can you tell me how he is to work with and what you admire most? Thank you so much for your time.

To me it is a unique relationship I have with Angel. It is great to work with him because of our relationship. I admire his love and passion for the game of racing.

Delano, MN:
What was going through your mind as you battled Curlin coming to the wire in the Belmont?

Basically, what was going through my mind was just keep fighting baby. And I was proud she responded.

Lexington, KY:
John, you were the rider on another great filly trained by Todd, Ashado. Can you compare Rags to Riches at this point?

To be honest with you, I never compare horses because they are all so different—running styles, temperament, etc. Ashado was a great horse and danced every dance out there. Rags to Riches is a great horse already.

Floral Park, NY:
Johnny, Congratulations from Bill and Mary Ryan-Hirsch. After that horrible looking stumble at the gate, and then to go on and beat a Preakness winner had to be one of the greatest horse races we have ever seen. I think it would be interesting to hear you explain to the racing public what a rider does after a horse stumbles to help them get over it. Please explain.

First of all, if your horse is not standing straight and they open the gate, you have to be prepared that something may happen. There are different distances of a race and that makes a big difference. If a horse stumbles, you have to give him a chance to recover. Then get a feeling of the horse if he is traveling good or not. That way you know the horse did not get hurt. When you figure out the horse is not hurt and is going well, then you then have to think of the plans for the race, and then going back to the preparation you had, you have to think of the plans you hand for the race and then you hope the best. When she stumbled, at a mile and half she had plenty of time to recover.  Thankfully she was not hurt.

Randallstown, MD:
Hi John- Congratulations on you first Triple Crown race win, you are one of Puerto Rico's greatest ambassadors!! I am curious to know what made you start racing Thoroughbreds and what help you be so successful?

Back in Puerto Rico, I got to meet some jockeys. That’s when I got the idea I could ride for a living. I grew up around horses but never at the racetrack. I believe God has blessed me with a talent and enabled me to meet all the great people I work with.

Johnstown, PA:
Hi John, I have wanted to be a Thoroughbred jockey for awhile now, and was wondering if you have any pointers and advice? And congrats on your awesome victory on one of my fav fillies (not just based on her Belmont win!) Rags to Riches!!

First of all, your weight is one of the most important things. Having your weight under control and having a healthy weight will help a great deal. Weight is very demanding on jockeys. And surround yourself with good people who are willing to teach you. You have put a lot of hard work and time into it and listen to their advice. Always remain positive and believe in yourself. You also have to be prepared for rejection. If you are interested, there is a jockeys’ school in Lexington.

Elmont, NY:
Is there any race that you would like to win more than any other, excluding the Kentucky Derby, before you retire? What would you like to accomplish?

Well, God bless and I am able I think I have a while to go before I retire. Of course, I would like to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But what I would like to accomplish more than anything is to work together with racetracks and horsemen’s groups to promote the sport. That is one of my main goals. My career is first. But my goal is to for the horsemen  and racetracks to realize we have to work together to promote our game. Our game has been going downhill for many years and the reason is we don’t do enough to promote our game and promote it the right way. We don’t work together. There are so many other sports people can go and see, and they are on TV all the time, not on their own TV channel like racing. We have to take a different approach to promoting our game.

Vero Beach, FL:
Johnny, is it true what they say about the horses looking at each other eye to eye? Did Curlin and Rags to Riches do that? Thanks, Jennifer

They do it all the time and they are very competitive. Not only can you see it, but you can feel the power when they are doing that. It’s who wants to be stronger.

New York, NY:
Congratulations on the Belmont win!! I was curious how your business relationship with Todd Pletcher works. Is it something that is in a written contract or just a handshake agreement that you ride for him? And if you had ridden a quality horse for another trainer and that horse was going against a Pletcher horse in a stakes race, how would that work out? John

We don’t have any contracts at all. It is just a verbal agreement, a handshake, whatever you want to call it. We have been working together for so many years we respect each other, and he and Angel get along very well.

Paris, KY:
Thanks for sharing your time with us. Without putting you on the spot for specifics, are there times when you regret the way you rode a race?

It happens a lot. You made some mistakes, it’s human nature. When I am riding for Todd or one of my friends, I come back and say, “man I really messed up this one.”

Lexington, KY:
When you came to the U.S. did you ride a lot for your father-in-law, Leo O’Brien and do you still ride for him?

I still ride quite a lot for him. When I came to this country in 1990, I started riding for Marjorie Cordero, Angel’s wife, and then for Bob Klesaris, who was the leading trainer in New York. And I rode for some other trainers.  My first winner was for Marjorie here in the States. I came to live with them. We have been together a long time. They treated me like I was part of the family from day one.

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