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A Seat in the Bleachers: Velazquez saw career take flight at Saratoga

A Seat in the Bleachers: Velazquez saw career take flight at Saratoga

Trainer Todd Pletcher's decision to let jockey John Velazquez ride Circle of Life in the 1999 Spinaw

The 2-year-old filly was named Circle of Life.

She was trained by a young former assistant to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas named Todd Pletcher and finished second in the 1999 Schuylerville under Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, while a young jockey from Puerto Rico named John Velazquez finished last on long shot Gilded Diablo

Velazquez had hoped to be riding the favorite in the final juvenile filly stakes of the meet, the Spinaway, but he was taken off.

Enter Circle of Life.

Pletcher gave the mount to Velazquez, and he won the Spinaway with the filly, beating heavy favorites ridden by Bailey and another Hall of Famer, Pat Day.

Sitting in the cool shade of the backyard of the jock’s room on Thursday, Velazquez said it was one of his favorite moments at Saratoga, and today his career will complete the circle he started in the 1990s when he’s inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame on the other side of Union Avenue from the track.

It’s fitting that it’s all coming together here, because, as much success as Velazquez has had all over North America, Saratoga has been the center of the circle, a place that nearly chewed him up and spit him out in 1992, but has embraced him so thoroughly that he’s on the verge of catching Bailey as the all-time leader in wins.

“My mom was here that summer, and my dad and everybody was here, and I told my mom, ‘This is not working out, we’re going to have to go back home,’ ” Velazquez said. “And my mom said, ‘No, no, you’ve got to stay here. You’ve got to stay in Saratoga and work hard, little by little.’

“Little by little, I started catching up.”

Velazquez will be inextricably linked to Pletcher, for whom has has been the first-call rider for years.

It’s no coincidence that, so goes one, so goes the other.

He’s also tightly connected to Hall of Famer Angel Cordero Jr., the King of Saratoga who is his long-time agent and confidant, a fellow Puerto Rican who took Velazquez into his house when he first came to the U.S.

Cordero was a sorely needed resource for Velazquez because he did not speak English well at the time.

“We do take English in Puerto Rico, but we don’t speak it very much,” Velazquez said. “You know words, but you can’t speak it because you can’t put it together, you can’t put a sentence together. The basics are there. I started watching TV and dealing with Angel, we spoke English. Then dating my wife, and you have conversations.”

Velazquez’s wife Leona, with whom they have a daughter, Lerina, and a son, Michael Patrick, is the daughter of trainer Leo O’Brien, who is responsible for another of Velazquez’s favorite Saratoga moments.

In 1996, he won the Alabama on the O’Brien-trained Yanks Music.

Three years later, Circle of Life’s Spinaway was another breakthrough, as it helped send the Pletcher-Velazquez axis spinning toward greatness.

“Todd was just getting rolling, and I was taken off the favorite and I ended up picking up the horse for him,” Velazquez said. “Now we know the trainer he is, but he was up-and-coming at the time, so it was very special for me and very gratifying that we picked up that mount.”

“Early on in his career, it had to be very helpful, coming over from Puerto Rico, to have an influence like Angel,” said Pletcher, who will introduce Velazquez at today’s

induction ceremony at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion. “But at the same time, he’s his own guy, and I was always confident he was going to be able to make it on his own.”

Velazquez was able to do that because he could ride with the best, but also because, as his English got better, he was able to operate more smoothly in racing circles.

His skills on a horse were never in question.

Velazquez has won 26 meet titles in New York since 1996, including five at Saratoga.

He ranks 32nd on the all-time victory leaderboard, and his purses of well over a quarter of a billion dollars ranks third behind the retired Day and Bailey.

“I’ve said it time and time again, he’s the complete package,” Pletcher said. “He’s a versatile rider who fits every kind of horse. He’s cap­able of picking up a lazy horse and getting their interest, and he’s cap­able of a very quiet ride on one that’s too aggressive. He rides the turf and dirt equally well. He’s a good gate rider. Getting one that’s worthy of the Hall of Fame is that type of rider. He can do it all.”

“He’s very competitive, and he does everything he needs to do to win the race, but having said that, he’s very respectful of everybody and doesn’t seem to cross the line,” fellow jockey Ramon Dominguez said.

“He’s accomplished a lot on the track, but his accomplishments out there would have no value if he wasn’t the person he is. He’s an example in our profession for everyone.”

That aspect of Velazquez’s career completes another circle.

He said he’s received so much from the sport that it’s gratifying to give something back by serving as the chairman of the board for the Jockeys’ Guild, which was in disarray and bankrupt when he was elected in 2007. Since then, the union has gotten back on its feet.

“It’s important for me to be a part of it, because this is very close to us,” he said. “Safety’s first, for everyone, you try to have the proper insurance, the best medical care that we can give them and try to get the connections to know that we are part of the business. We don’t like to be against it. That was part of the deal when I came in.

“It’s been very rewarding. When I first started working for the Guild, all the turmoil we went through was crazy, so, to get to where we are now, there’s still a lot of work to do, but we are in a much better place.”

Around the jocks’ room, Velazquez is deeply respected for his riding ability as well as the way he carries himself.

“He’s somebody who treats everybody equally, even though he’s always been in a position to maybe feel superior or whatever,” Dominguez said.

Velazquez is fully healed, but not quite fully recovered from the broken right collarbone that forced him to miss opening weekend of the meet.

By design, he’s slowly rebuilding his stamina, riding no more than three or four a day until he believes he has the strength to crank out a full card.

In the meantime, he’s winning at a high percentage.

He’s been too busy to write down a speech, but when he’s standing in front of all those faces in that semicircular pavilion this morning, there’s little doubt he’ll bring it all the way around.

“I’m trying to think how to manage this deal, but I’ll manage,” he said, his mouth curving into a smile.

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