Saturday, August 11, 2012
Hall of Fame Day: All In the Family
August 18, 2012—In the end, one of the gifts that has allowed John R. “Johnny” Velazquez to transition from the Eddie Belmonte Jockey School in Puerto Rico to Thoroughbred Racing’s Hall of Fame, his cool, dispassionate grace under fire, betrayed him.
But it was fine because his wife Leona, by his side for much of his meteoric career, was there to stand by her man who checked and steadied, choked with emotion.
“I’ll hold your hand like I always do,” said Leona, joining Johnny at the podium during his acceptance speech for becoming the 96th jockey in history to be enshrined. It was a tougher, tighter spot than anything he ever encountered across the street at Saratoga Race Course.
Johnny V was last to be inducted, following fellow honorees from yesteryear, jockey Anthony Hamilton, the race horse Planet, who trained for his races on the trot, and his contemporaries, the late trainer Robert Wheeler, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, and legendary Canadian Hall of Fame member, trainer Roger Attfield, who saddled three Canadian Triple Crown winners, including the Queen’s Plate a record eight times.
But Velazquez, known for his pre-race preparation, wasn’t ready for what was to come once he began thanking all the people in his life that made this day possible. It started with his mother, who was in the audience and was just as emotional.
He said that once she got passed the idea of her son riding horses for a living, his mother’s support was unwavering.
He apologized virtually to everyone he’s ever known in racing, just in case he forgot anybody, but the special thanks were reserved for those who really had a profound effect on his life; his own family and that of Angel Cordero’s. Cordero, of course, was Johnny’s biggest supporter, became his mentor, and then agent.
But it was Cordero’s daughter Canella, then a toddler, who Velazquez thanked in a special way, recalling that she sat with him to watch ‘The Little Mermaid,’ “every day for two months. That’s how I learned to speak English.”
And he then thanked Marjorie Cordero, who died too young in a traffic accident, but treated Johnny “like a son…but she was too young then, so like a brother.”
He then thanked the wily Michael Dickinson for giving him the mount on Da Hoss in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. “He walked the course. He told me be here at this point, be there at that point, pointing to places on the racetrack.
“And I want to thank Nick Zito for showing confidence in me. I was still an apprentice and he had me work this two-year-old in Saratoga. I worked him three times. Later he broke his maiden at Belmont Park. The next year, Strike The Gold won the Derby.
“Nick, it took me 21 years to finally win the Derby,” he said to his fellow Hall of Famer, who also was in attendance.
But it was the early years--“tough times”--he called them, that Velazquez could not forget.
After losing his apprentice allowance in 1992, “I thought about going back to Puerto Rico, I thought my career was over.” But then he reconnected with Ralph Theroux Sr., who handled Velazquez’s business when he was an apprentice.
“Would you like to work for me?” Velazquez asked the veteran agent. “‘I can start right now,’ and he walked over and picked up a condition book.” Just then, he got emotional again. “I think I should have stayed home,” he laughed.
Even the normally unflappable Todd Pletcher, standing behind him, both figuratively and literally, seemed to catch himself as he made the introduction. “He’s not only a great rider but he’s a role model, a great family man,” Pletcher said.
And so the 40-year-old rider, who owns 22 New York riding titles, who added another winner to the 4,841 he had through Wednesday, adding to his career earnings of $268 million, which places him third all-time behind Pat Day and Jerry Bailey.
If he, Pletcher, and his other clients get hot from now through Labor Day, he could end this meeting as the winningest rider in Saratoga history, trailing only Bailey.
And know that he’ll be looking to add to his 11 Breeders’ Cup wins at Santa Anita in November and, come next spring and summer, a second Kentucky Derby—he thanked Graham Motion, too, of course--and a third Belmont.
Johnny starting thinking about the 5,000 win plateau the day he reached 4,000, he said earlier in the week, and he’d like to be Saratoga’s all-time leading rider because “it was so important to Angel,” who Bailey eclipsed almost a decade ago.
But at the end of this day and the ones remaining, he will go home to Leona, ever the class act, still standing by his side as the ceremonies ended.
Of his family time, he said “I missed a lot of birthdays, a lot of graduations,” indeed flubbing the grade of one of the commencement exercises.
“I just had a concussion so I’m a little confused,” he laughed. And the crowd laughed right along with him, those who were not honoring the occasion with tears of joy.