by Brian Bohl
John Velazquez's career features more milestones than the decommissioned Route 66. A small sampling includes his Hall of Fame induction in 2012; back-to-back Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey in 2004-05; two Kentucky Derby victories, two Belmont Stakes triumphs and 16 wins in Breeders' Cup races that are second-most all-time.
Velazquez, who will celebrate his 48th birthday on November 24, is approaching another prestigious accomplishment, entering this week tied with fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey with 660 career graded stakes wins in the United States and Canada. He will have ample chances to set the record this week, flying out to Santa Anita on Friday for the Grade I, $300,000 American Pharoah and the Grade I, $300,000 Chandelier, as well as competing in the Grade 2, $200,000 Eddie D on Opening Day. Velazquez will also have opportunities to make history at Belmont Park in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Racing Festival.
This weekend at Belmont could offer Velazquez a chance to set the record at a familiar track, with a return call on Runhappy Travers-winner Code of Honor in the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup that is also a "Win and You're In" qualifier to the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Santa Anita Park. Velazquez also will ride Midnight Bisou in the Grade 2, $300,000 Beldame.
"It's nothing that I set out to do," Velazquez said. "One day when I retire, I'll know I did something good. That's the way I look at it. I've just been blessed with the people I work with and all the opportunities I've been given. Whether it's a stakes race or any other race, you have to go to work. You have to concentrate and do the best you can."
Velazquez, who is the sport's all-time leading jockey by earnings with more than four-tenths of a billion dollars amassed ($410 million entering the weekend of September 21), started his professional career in 1990. He rode his first winner, El Comandante, in Puerto Rico and first United States winner in My Brother Jay in March of that year at Aqueduct Racetrack. That first taste of success in New York was a harbinger of greatness in the Big Apple, with Velazquez notching four consecutive year-end NYRA riding titles from 2001-04.
Velazquez was successful early in his career, recording a minimum of 100 wins in every year from 1990-94 while also improving the quality of those wins, posting his first graded stakes victory with Private Man in the 1991 Grade 2 Ohio Derby in Thistledown in North Randall, Ohio.
It took until 1995, when Turk Passer won the Turf Classic Invitational [now known as the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic] for Velazquez to win his first Grade 1. He has amassed 193 of those in total, zeroing in on Bailey's record of 216 Grade 1 wins and contemporary and Hall of Famer Mike Smith, the closest active rider with 213.
Not until 2005, when Velazquez was 33, did he post double digit Grade 1 wins in a calendar year, finishing with 11. His prowess in the sport's most prestigious races has continued to improve with age, as five of his six career double-digit Grade 1 wins came after his 38th birthday, including a career-high 14 in 2012 and back-to-back years of 13 in 2013-14.
"Some people get successful when they're young, and I was a little older," Velazquez said. "Some hit it right away. For me, it took five-to-six years to get going and get into the big stables and big opportunities, so everybody is different. I learn as I go. I became a jockey because I liked horses, but I didn't know anything about the racetrack and race riding or anything like that. I'm blessed that I'm still here."
Last November, in a race at Aqueduct, Velazquez became just the 18th jockey to win 6,000 races. He reached that mark on a horse trained by Todd Pletcher, who also saddled the horse on which Velazquez rode his 5,000th winner in 2013. The duo has forged a productive partnership that includes two wins in American Classics. The first, Rags to Riches in the 2012 Belmont Stakes, featured Velazquez piloting the first filly to victory in the "Test of the Champion" since 1905 and the first filly to win any Triple Crown race since Winning Colors won the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Pletcher and Velazquez teamed to win the "Run for the Roses" in 2017 with Always Dreaming, marking Velazquez's second Derby win and first since Animal Kingdom in 2011.
The graded stakes pursuit is not the first time Velazquez has challenged a hollowed mark set by Bailey. He became the all-time leading rider at historic Saratoga Race Course in 2013, earning career win No. 694 to break Bailey's previous record.
But statistics and records haven't defined the full measure of Velazquez's impact on the sport. As the chairman of the Jockey's Guild board of directors, and a board member of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund since 2006, Velazquez has advocated for jockeys in official capacities and as a mentor in the jock's room.
Manny Franco, who like Velazquez is a native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, credited Velazquez with helping him acclimate to New York when he started racing here in 2013. Like Velazquez, Franco attended jockey school in his native island and is represented by Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, Jr., who is also Velazquez's agent.
"Coming form Puerto Rico, I knew about his career, but when I got to the school, I really started looking at his races," said Franco, who was the 2018 NYRA year-ending leading rider. "When I came here, he helped me a lot and gave me some tips on how to ride horses and the way to ride here in New York.
"Johnny's the GOAT [greatest of all time]," he added. "And he's still doing great and looking the same. Later in my career, I would like it to really be like his. You have to give a lot of credit to him because it's not easy to win any races, let alone stakes races. It's a great accomplishment and I'm so happy for him."
Before attaining titles pertaining to the greatest of all time, Velazquez said he needed opportunities as a young rider, and credited a slew of trainers for giving him chances when he was starting out, including John Forbes, Richard Schosberg and John DeStefano, among others.
"They gave me opportunities with stakes horses and it gave a chance for
everyone to see me, and that opened the doors," Velazquez said. "Back then, that's what it was. You won a lot of races and stayed here in the winter and hopefully you got some good horses and won some stakes and moved on. That's how it happened."
Velazquez said he has no plans to stop, health permitting, and pointed to jockeys such as Smith, who won the Triple Crown with Justify in 2018 at 52, and Gary Stevens, who won the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man at 50.
"Right now, I'm healthy and getting the opportunities, so why stop now? Health is the most important thing," he said. "If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have said [I'd stop] around 45. People put a stigma to it when you get to this age. But Mike Smith is in his 50s and doing great and Gary Stevens came back twice in his late 40s and 50s and did really well. So, I think it's changing. Pat Day, when he retired, was one of the first to push past 45 and that stigma. So, they opened the door for me, and I want to do that for the other guys. If they are healthy, they can ride for much longer."
In addition to the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Saturday at Belmont will feature the Grade 1, $300,000 Vosburgh, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, as well as the Grade 2, $300,000 Beldame for fillies and mares on the main track and the Grade 3, $200,000 Pilgrim for 2-year-olds on turf.