Hall of Famer John Velazquez approaching 2,000 wins at Belmont Park
by Keith McCalmont
Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez enters Thursday's 10-race card at Belmont Park just one win shy of 2,000 at the historic track, more than any other rider in the facility's 115-year history.
The 48-year-old Velazquez, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2012, has won 6,237 career races and boasts seven Belmont riding titles [four at the spring/summer meet and three at the fall meet] to his credit.
"He has the ability to ride every type of race smartly," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "He's good on horses that have speed and on horses that come from behind. He's very accomplished on both dirt and turf. Any time you pile up the sort of numbers he's been able to accumulate, it also shows how consistent he is. To perform at such a high level for so long is very difficult, but it's a byproduct of his professional nature and his professional lifestyle on and off the racetrack. That's why he's been able to succeed for such a long time."
Pletcher, who is 14 victories short of 5,000 for his storied career, has partnered with Velazquez for 1,819 of those wins, including 491 at Belmont of which 57 came in graded events.
Velazquez owns more career graded wins  than any other rider, with 170 captured at Belmont, a track Pletcher claims the veteran rider knows like the back of his hand.
"There's an advantage to being familiar with Belmont and the main track mile and a half oval and this has been his base for most of his career," said Pletcher. "I think his familiarity and knowing how to ride Belmont is part of it, but he's simply just a complete rider wherever he goes, be it here, Dubai, Ascot or anywhere else."
At closer inspection, it's safe to say Velazquez knows his way to the winner's circle at the Elmont oval.
He leads all riders with five wins in the prestigious Grade 1 Runhappy Met Mile including scores with the Pletcher-trained Quality Road  and Palace Malice  as well as from Honour and Glory , Sir Bear  and Shackleford .
The native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, secured his first of 200 career Grade 1 wins with a victory in the 1995 Turf Classic with Turk Passer at Belmont. He has won the event, now named the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, on more occasions than any other rider, including scores with eventual prominent sires Kitten's Joy , Point of Entry  and two with the Pletcher-conditioned English Channel [2006-07].
His talent with sprinters resulted in Velazquez capturing the Grade 1 Vosburgh Invitational on three occasions, starting with the Pletcher-prepared Left Bank , along with Henny Hughes  and The Lumber Guy .
Velazquez has also shown an ability at the highest level with young horses at Belmont guiding Pletcher trainees Scat Daddy  and Uncle Mo  to Champagne scores in their 2-year-old season. In addition, he called the shots for juvenile scores from Traitor  and Lemon Drop Kid  in the Futurity.
Velazquez has twice won the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, the traditional third leg of the Triple Crown, including with Union Rags in 2012 and in the 2007 edition where Rags to Riches provided Pletcher his first career Classic win while becoming the first filly to capture the "Test of the Champion" since 1905.
Rags to Riches, patiently piloted by Velazquez, overcame adversity and historic competition - including Grade 1-winning multimillionaires Tiago and Hard Spun - before prevailing by a head in a dramatic stretch duel with two-time Horse of the Year and eventual Hall of Famer Curlin.
"That race is a great example of just how great a rider he is," said Pletcher. "First off, she went to her nose at the start and just staying on board was an accomplishment in its own right. To be able to recover and gradually let her regain position goes back to his knowing Belmont and knowing the circumference of the track and that you can't move too early.
"After that awkward start, he made every right decision that allowed her to recover along the way in a tight finish," added Pletcher. "He's such a good finisher and so strong. To me, that race is a real tribute to his ability as a world-class jockey."
Veteran trainer Rick Schosberg, a member of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (NYTHA) board of directors and the Chair of NYTHA's Aftercare Committee, has legged Velazquez up on 70 winners at Belmont Park dating back to May 1991 when Only Above captured a turf claiming route.
"I remember that mare well," said Schosberg. "My wife and I bought the horse out of a training sale at Belmont Park for $8,500 way back at the beginning of my career.
"We've had such tremendous success together along the way," continued Schosberg. "And he's obviously taken off to the Hall of Fame where he so richly deserves to be. In a way it came full circle."
Last year, Schosberg was struggling to get New York-bred maiden winner Mary's Girl, owned by Schosberg in partnership with Clear Stars Stable, back to the winner's circle.
Following a pair of frustrating seconds in allowance company at Belmont, Schosberg asked Velazquez to take the reins in a state-bred allowance tilt at the Big A.
"We were struggling along last year trying to win a race here with Mary's Girl, a filly who loved to be second a lot. Johnny was available to ride her and she won easily," said Schosberg of the smart three-length score on November 16. "Michael Geraghty, my partner with Clear Stars, said it was just like the old days and that when things aren't working out, go back to what got you here."
For Schosberg, going back to basics meant a call to Velazquez, who the horseman said is just as effective in a Thursday afternoon claiming race as he is in a prestigious Grade 1 on a marquee Saturday.
"When you're in a bit of a slump with your stable and you need a win or a good race, Johnny on turf, dirt, short, or long and whether the track is sloppy or dry, he always has them in position to run their best," said Schosberg. "When we put him on Mary's Girl last year, she had hit the board a bunch of times but she had always come up a bit short, but she won for Johnny that day. It's a skilled rider that can have a horse like that feeling confident in themselves. Be it a $25,000 claimer, a New York-bred allowance or a Grade 1, he puts every horse in a position to run its best race and that's all you can ask."
Schosberg, in his capacity at NYTHA, and Velazquez, as co-Chairman of the Jockeys' Guild, are also doing their part to better the sport they love.
"It's been an honor to work with him both on and off the racetrack as a representative of the horsemen for the last decade or two and with Johnny as a representative of the jockeys through negotiations on so many different initiatives," said Schosberg. "The art of getting projects and initiatives moved forward for the good of this sport with so many different stakeholders is a tribute to him and his skills and demeanor as a person. I just wish his 2,000th win at Belmont could be with one of mine."
Velazquez has seven scheduled mounts on Thursday's 10-race program, which offers a first post of 12:50 p.m. Eastern, including Vermont Billy [Race 1, George Weaver], Hayabusa One [Race 3, Mark Casse], Vintage Hollywood [Race 5, Orlando Noda], High Tide [Race 6, Pletcher], Tiergan [Race 8, Bill Mott], Festina Plente [Race 9, Michael Stidham], and Panster [Race 10, Christophe Clement].
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