Home Sports Jockey John Velazquez on scary Preakness incident, Belmont changes, his future

Jockey John Velazquez on scary Preakness incident, Belmont changes, his future

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With horse racing having gotten back on track after being shut down by the pandemic, two-time Kentucky Derby- and Belmont Stakes-winning jockey John Velazquez gallops through some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.

Q: How do you feel about the protests in this country?

A: I don’t want to get political, but what’s wrong is wrong. The riots and looting is wrong, it doesn’t fix anything. We know that racism exists — it’s here and it’s everywhere, not just in the United States. I’m from Puerto Rico, and I see it in Puerto Rico as well. You have to think about equality. No matter what you are, just equality for everybody. I am for equality for everybody, whether it’s a woman a man or any color or religion. I think the humanity would be much better if everybody treats everybody the same basically and give love and compassion.

Q: What will it be like having the Belmont Stakes as the first leg of the Triple Crown instead of the last?

A: We thought that last year was a weird year, and 2020 made it more weird than last year (laugh). … Very strange.

Q: What will it be like without fans?

A: The fans are gonna be missed.

Q: What is unique about the New York racing fans?

A: They’re very unique, actually, they can be very, very loving, or very rude as well (laugh). You definitely have to have a tough skin in New York. It’s like if you can make in New York you can make it anywhere. They can be very, very good, but they can be very, very tough as well.

Q: The race is 1 ¹/₈ miles instead of the 1 ¹/₂- mile Test of a Champion.

A: It’s definitely very unusual.

Q: Is that good for your horse, Tap It to Win?

A: Absolutely yes (laugh). This time, only going to 1 ¹/₈ miles, this definitely helps my horse.

Q: Why has trainer Todd Pletcher been perfect for you?

A: We’ve been a great partnership — great horses and having the trust from one another. You have to have a plan for the race, not just Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, but you have to be ready to change quick and try to make the less mistakes possible, so once those gates open, I’m the one who has to make decisions for the horses. And he gave me that trust.

Horse Racing
Jockey John Velazquez talks to trainer Todd Pletcher.Jason Szenes

Q: Can you sum up the traits that have made you a Hall of Fame jockey?

A: Great opportunity, great horses, that’s the main thing. But you have to be able make things happen in the race. Not all the time the horse is gonna make it easy for you to win a race.

Q: Describe Rags to Riches, your 2007 Belmont Stakes winner.

A: I never got an opportunity to ride her before the Belmont. We thought the distance suited her really well. That was a tough year for 3-year-olds, and for her to do what she did, stumbling from the gate, me thinking that that’s it, the race was over right from the git-go. It came down to the wire, with a neck in front of the other horse [Curlin], who became the horse of the year the following year. Incredible.

Q: Union Rags, your 2012 Belmont Stakes winner.

A: Another horse that I got lucky enough that the connections felt that I fit the horse perfectly and gave me the opportunity to ride it in the Belmont, and not only that, execute everything the way we thought it was gonna come out.

Q: Animal Kingdom, your 2011 Kentucky Derby winner.

A: You have to be a really good horse to do what he did coming from grass to the dirt. A pleasure to be on it, lucky to be on it too, because I was not supposed to be riding him.

Q: Always Dreaming, your 2017 Kentucky Derby winner.

A: To see him grow from one race to another race, and taking a lot of criticism that people didn’t believe in him, and he goes and proved us right. What a horse.

Q: Missing on your résumé: winning the Preakness. What would that mean to you?

A: It would mean a lot to me, because I’ve been chasing all these Triple Crown races, and I have not had the opportunity to win the Preakness. I have two seconds in the Preakness.

Q: Tell me about last year’s Preakness.

A: I didn’t ride it much, I got thrown (laugh). He [Bodexpress] had a bad reputation for this — this time it was not the horse’s fault. The assistant starter at the gate did not give us the opportunity the horse needed to get. When the doors opened, he was holding on to his mouth and he just jumped so high that he just threw me. Thankfully the horse and myself came back OK.

Q: You were carried off on a stretcher and taken by ambulance to the hospital with a broken shoulder after Up an Octave collapsed after winning the Forerunner Stakes at Keeneland in 2006.

A: I never really had a horse running over me, and it was scary. My whole right side of my body was kind of numb.

Q: How much time did you miss?

A: I think I missed two months that year.

Q: Wise Dan was one of your favorites, right?

A: My favorite horse by far, yeah. I got on it by luck as well. He was a difficult horse to ride, definitely very strong and very difficult, and I came up with an idea how to get him to settle and it worked out. From the first day I rode him, I got along with him. He went from dirt to grass to poly, he won everything. Once he learned to relax and to put him where I wanted to, that’s what made him a great horse.

Q: You thought about going back home to Puerto Rico in 1992. Why didn’t you?

A: Separated with my agent that I had at the time and not having anybody … having a really, really tough meet, I think I won two or three races that summer at Saratoga. It was my second year riding. It gets to you — you think that you’re not good enough. I definitely thought I was gonna go home. My mom [Margarita] said, “Get another agent. This is what you decided to do. You’re not gonna give it up that easy.” I found an agent [Ralph Theroux Jr.], and here I am. It was a gift coming from God, I think.

Q: How proud are you that you’re the biggest money-maker in the sport?

A: I never thought anything like that. People have trusted me with the horses. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity that I’ve been given. You have to be proud and humble.

Q: Is that why you like watching “Billions”?

A: I love to learn different things, and it’s very entertaining.

Q: If you could pick the brain of any jockey in the history of horse racing, who would you want to sit down with?

A: (Laugh) That’s a really good question. I have to tell you that I’ve been very fortunate that I have been around all the best jockeys that I could remember. When I got here in New York, 1990, if you mention [Angel] Cordero, Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Pat Day — all those guys that I look up to — I rode with them. So I talk to them all the time, you know what I mean? I couldn’t pick one of them because I talk to all of them (laugh). It was a great thing for me just to see them ride and talk to them.

Q: If you could ride any horse in history, which would it be?

A: There’s so many, but I would say Cigar. I saw the growth that he had. No question for me it’s Cigar, yes.

Q: What about Secretariat?

A: Well, I was not around with Secretariat.

Q: How safe do you feel at the track?

A: I’m the chairman of the Jockey Guild, and I’m proud that we’ve been working with the racetracks throughout the country to set up protocols. We’re very proud and humble to be here and back for business.

Q: You stayed at the Cordero house when you first came to New York and learned English watching “Little Mermaid” with his 2 ¹/₂-year-old daughter Canela.

A: I lived with them for about, I don’t know, two months, I think. And everyday would come home and she’ll be waiting for me to sit with her and watch “The Little Mermaid” (laugh).

Q: Favorite movie”

A: “A Bronx Tale.” We were proud doing that movie, and we watch it all the time. We [Cordero and others] were in the movie when they had the races at Aqueduct.

Q: Three dinner guests?

A: Marc Anthony, Tom Hanks, Warren Buffett.

Q: Favorite actor?

A: Tom Hanks.

Q: Favorite actress?

A: Jennifer Lopez.

Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?

A: Marc Anthony.

Q: Favorite meal?

A: Puerto Rican food.

John Velazquez throws out the first pitch at Citi Field.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Q: How much longer do you want to ride?

A: I’m healthy and I’m getting opportunities that I’ve been given, even this age [48] … being selective obviously, not riding as many races as well. I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes, I’m still chasing a couple of races like you said, so hopefully I’m healthy enough before I retire to win one of those races (laugh).

Q: What drives you?

A: I love riding, I love being competitive. I love doing the things that I love, and doing it well. That keeps me going and hungry.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

A: To tell you the truth, I never think about it. Racing’s been very good to me and my family, and I think I’m very good for racing as well. I think I’ve done a good job trying to make racing better and trying to make it safer for everybody, and try to grow the sport, basically.

Q: Even though there won’t be fans, and even though the race has been shortened, would it still be special to win the Belmont?

A: Absolutely. That hunger and that wanting to win the Belmont is special. For me being in New York, it’s home for me.

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