One of the smoothest jockeys on the planet had a heart-wrenching stop-and-start ride on Friday.
Halting repeatedly to compose himself, John Velazquez delivered his acceptance speech with emotion and pride at the Fasig-Tipton Pavilion as he was inducted into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame.
Joining him as 2012 inductees were trainers Roger Attfield and Robert Wheeler and Ghostzapper in the contemporary categories, and jockey Anthony Hamilton and Planet, who were honored by the historic review committee.
Velazquez, a 40-year-old native of Puerto Rico, came to the U.S. in 1990 and became one of the greatest in the history of the sport, winning the Eclipse Award in 2004 and 2005.
It almost never happened, since he was ready to head back to Puerto Rico while having a particularly poor meet at Saratoga Race Course in the early years, only to be convinced by his mother to stay.
Velazquez stopped several times during his speech, but the longest moments were while reminiscing about how his mother, who attended the ceremony, and the late jockey agent Ralph Theroux Sr. supported him during the discouraging, lean times.
Finally, Velazquez’s wife, Leona, walked up on stage to show her support, after which Velazquez was able to keep his emotions in check.
“I have to say that my No. 1 supporter is my mother . . .” he said, choking up. “It was a difficult time for us . . . I promised I’d try. I’m trying . . . I’m sticking to it.
“She did not want this for my career.”
Todd Pletcher, by far the most influential trainer in Velazquez’s career, delivered his introduction speech.
He credited Velazquez not only for his riding talent, but the superiority of his character.
Velazquez, who did not speak English well when he came to the U.S., has been the chairman of the board of the Jockeys’ Guild since 2007.
“I think I read yesterday that he’s the 96th jockey to be inducted to the Hall of Fame,” Pletcher said. “There’s no magic number or certain amount of wins or money won or stakes wins that makes someone get to the Hall of Fame, but whatever that magic number is, with Johnny’s induction today, the bar has been raised to an all-new level.
“We all know what a terrific rider he is, but more importantly than that, to me, is that he’s a terrific role model, a terrific husband, a caring father . . . just an all-around super human being.”
Also in attendance was Angel Cordero Jr., a Hall of Fame rider himself and Velazquez’s long-time agent who brought Velazquez into his home when he arrived in the U.S. as a teenager.
Velazquez said his English improved in part from watching “The Little Mermaid” with Cordero’s daughter . . . “Every. Day,” drawing laughter from the full house.
“This is the highest honor you can have in horse racing,” Velazquez said. “Obviously, I have a lot of people behind me.
“Angel, without him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Velazquez has won 11 Breeders’ Cup races, and in recent years, has begun to find the winner’s circle in Triple Crown races.
He won the 2007 Belmont Stakes on the filly Rags to Riches, last year’s Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom and this year’s Belmont on Union Rags.
He has won 26 meet titles on the NYRA circuit, including five at Saratoga, where he holds the record for a single season, with 65 in 2004.
Also among his family in attendance was trainer Leo O’Brien, who gave Velazquez a leg up when he won the 1996 Alabama on Yanks Music.
“He rode Yanks Music all the time, but he got beat in the first Grade I, through no fault of his own,” O’Brien said. “And the owner said maybe we should get Jerry Bailey. I said, ‘Uh-uh, no way.’ It wasn’t Johnny’s fault. He’s staying on the horse, and he rode her in all the races after that.
“This is delightful. I’m very happy and very proud, and glad he’s part of our family. He’s one of the best.”
Attfield, who was born in England in 1939, trained three Canadian Triple Crown winners and six Canadian Horse of the Year winners, and 44 of his horses have won Sovereign Awards. He has won the Sovereign Award as top Canadian trainer eight times.
He won his first Breeders’ Cup race last year, with Perfect Shirl in the Filly and Mare Turf.
His first Canadian Triple Crown winner, With Approval, completed that feat in 1989.
Wheeler won 1,336 races from 1938 to 1992.
He trained Hall of Famer Silver Spoon and champion Track Robbery. He won the Santa Anita Derby and Travers with Tompion in 1960.
Ghostzapper, trained by the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel and owned by Frank Stronach, was Horse of the Year in 2004, when he won all four of his starts, including the Woodward at Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Hamilton won most of the prestigioues races in the country during the late 1880s, including all of the major handicap races in New York, the Brooklyn, Suburban and Metropolitan.
Planet was one of the top horses in the country in the years leading up to the Civil War.