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At the Kentucky Derby, Puerto Ricans Add to Racing Traditions

May 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The Kentucky Derby is an event steeped in tradition. The roses, the spired grandstand of Churchill Downs, and the mint julep are all symbols of horse racing’s premier contest. Here genealogy is studied to the point of obsession, and each horse is judged as much by its lineage as by its performance.

Jockey John Velázquez, who will ride Saarland this Saturday in the 128th running of the Derby, is part of another proud racing tradition. The New York-based Velázquez will represent Puerto Rico and its long history of champion horses, trainers and jockeys, as he tries to win his first Kentucky Derby.

Equestrian sports have deep roots in Puerto Rico, where horse breeding and competition date back to long before the first Kentucky Derby in 1875. Indeed, the first horses were introduced to Puerto Rico centuries before any horse tasted Kentucky bluegrass. In 1510, Captain Martín de Salazar brought horses to the island under orders from Governor Juan Ponce de León. They originally served a military purpose, as they were key to Spain’s conquest and domination of the New World.

Eventually, horses attained a more refined role, and by the 19th Century plantation owners were engaging in competitions and friendly wagers over their horses. Out of those gentlemen’s pursuits came the modern tradition of horse racing in Puerto Rico, which is exemplified by El Comandante racetrack, one of the top thoroughbred racing venues in the Americas.

El Comandante is known as the track where Bold Forbes, the "Puerto Rican Wonder Horse" who went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 1976, first made a name for himself. Bold Forbes’ rider in the Derby of ’74 was none other than Angel Cordero, Jr., Puerto Rico’s all-time greatest jockey.

The son of a jockey/trainer, Cordero grew up immersed in Puerto Rico’s racing scene. One of his childhood friends was Juan Miguel "Guengo" Rodríguez, who went on to become an acclaimed trainer. Cordero himself reached the pinnacle of racing achievement. He is one of the top money earners in the history of thoroughbred racing, and he won all three races of the prestigious Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby (1974, ’76, ’85), the Preakness (’80 and ’84), and the Belmont Stakes (’76).

After a life-threatening fall in 1992, Cordero retired from racing (though he would return to action briefly in 1995). While he is out of the saddle, however, he is not out of horse racing. He has become a trainer and agent, and he is currently representing John Velázquez, the jockey who could be the next Kentucky Derby winner and the next big Puerto Rican star.

John Velázquez was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, in 1971. He moved to New York at age 18 to train under Angel Cordero’s watchful eye. Velázquez lived with the Cordero family in New York, and his relationship with his agent and mentor has been extremely close.

"I would consider him like one of my kids," Cordero has said of Velázquez. "Even if I didn’t work for him, I would still feel the same way." Indeed, when Cordero’s wife was killed in a tragic hit and run accident last year, Velázquez dropped everything to be with his adopted family.

The relationship between Cordero and Velázquez has also worked well on the racetrack. When Velázquez first came to New York, he knew very little English and not much more about horse racing. Cordero groomed his protégé into one of the top jockeys in New York, with the potential to be among the best nationwide.

Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will be the test of whether Velázquez is ready to join the ranks of the country’s top jockeys. He has performed very well in the race the past two years, finished second last year and fourth in 2000.

To be in contention for the Roses, a good jockey needs a good horse under him. This year, Velázquez will ride Saarland, a horse considered one of the top Derby contenders. Sired by 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and owned by one of the grand old families of American racing, Saarland does not quite have the record to match the favorites in the Derby. He has been steadily improving, though, and has developed a reputation for strong finishes.

Moreover, like John Velázquez, Saarland is the product of a venerable racing tradition, and both jockey and horse are rising stars in the thoroughbred circuit. On Saturday at Churchill Downs, don’t be surprised if this promising duo makes racing history.

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