SARATOGA SPRINGS — John Velazquez started riding at Saratoga Race Course 27 years ago, before Irad or Jose Ortiz were born.
They grew up idolizing their Puerto Rican countryman, and have so closely followed his path through the jockey ranks that each has won a Saratoga riding title in the last two seasons, something Velazquez has done five times since 1998.
They’re battling each other for the 2017 championship, too, heading into today’s final day of the meet. But this weekend, Velazquez showed not only why he’s in the National Racing Hall of Fame across the street, but that he’s still got it.
Riding Vertical Oak for the first time in her 12-race career on a relentlessly sloppy track, Velazquez guided the filly through a clean trip, arriving at the finish line in sparkling white pants and not a speck of mud on his silks or his mount to win the Grade II Prioress on Sunday. It was his seventh win of the weekend and 45th of the meet, which puts him firmly in third place in the jockey standings behind the Ortiz brothers.
“That’s awesome, right? For an old man,” the 45-year-old Velazquez said of his weekend. “Coming here this year and getting to ride some nice horses and they’re performing, that’s nice.”
“Without a doubt or hesitation, Johnny’s one of the greatest ever,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, who had a pretty good weekend himself, winning the Woodward with Gun Runner on Saturday along with the Prioress. “He is consistent and consistently great, and any time you have an opportunity to use him, it’s a great thing.”
It will be very difficult for Irad Ortiz to catch his younger brother Jose for what would be Jose’s second straight Saratoga riding title.
Jose, who is scheduled to ride eight of the 10 races on today’s card, has 57 wins to 52 for Irad, who has nine mounts.
The training title is very tight between 12-time champion Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown, who won his first title last year.
Pletcher won two races Sunday to none for Brown to leapfrog into first place 39-38, through 396 races run at this meet. Brown has 10 horses entered in six of 10 races on today’s card, but two of the horses are in for main track only. Pletcher has 10 horses entered in eight races.
Vertical Oak was the only one of 10 fillies who ran in the Grade I Test earlier in the meet to come back in the Prioress.
Asmussen said the cutback from seven furlongs to six was one factor, as was her affinity for a muddy track in winning the Goldfinch at Prairie Meadows in Iowa this April. The rain started in the morning and never really stopped until just as the Prioress (5:38 p.m. post time) was run.
Vertical Oak also broke her maiden by 6 3/4 lengths at Saratoga last year while running the same distance as the Prioress.
“Her race at Prairie Meadows was very similar to today,” Asmussen said. “It was visually impressive, but you weren’t sure who she beat. With this, she clearly relishes the slop. This confirms that.
“This race suited us better than the Test, and we took a bit of a shot in the Test. She’s a very seasoned filly. She broke her maiden last year here, so she likes Saratoga. The Test being the race that it is, I thought she deserved a chance, and she ran valiantly in there battling between fillies and tired a bit late. Backing her up to three-quarters [of a mile] today helped her in distance.”
And Velazquez made sure she got out in front of the other speed horses while dueling with Student Body early and stayed there.
Vertical Oak put away Student Body as they got around the turn and skipped through the slop away from the field to win by 5 1/4 lengths over Nonna Mela.
“Steve told me she loves the slop and to let her do her thing,” Velazquez said. “I came out running to make sure I got position, and I was very confident on the turn. When I asked her down the lane, she was running nice.”