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New York Daily News

Velazquez Riding High Jockey's Fortunes Rising With Spa Success


August 19, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

SARATOGA SPRINGS - The kid rode a mechanical exercise horse in the house for hours, watched tapes, analyzed races and talked horses until the mentor's wife begged him to lay off.

Angel Cordero Jr. never did. He rode the kid as hard as his own father had, and the drive that brought Cordero 14 Saratoga riding titles and a plaque in the Hall of Fame across the street from this race track now has that kid, John Velazquez, on the same steady course to stardom.

"Sometimes I would go in to take a nap and I would leave him on the exercise horse," Cordero said. "My wife would wake me up and say, 'That kid has been in there two hours riding. You're going to kill that poor little thing.' I said, 'Honey, that kid will be the best we ever had come out of Puerto Rico. Let him practice.'"

Practice makes just about perfect. Velazquez has 45 wins through the first 24 days of the Spa meet, wiping out the old record of 41 set by Manny Ycaza in 1959. Well on his way to his second Saratoga riding title, Velazquez hasn't yet reached the national stature of riders like Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Laffit Pincay. At 31, Velazquez's star is still on the rise.

Cordero has been there nearly every step of the way through Velazquez's career, meeting him first through his friend Tico Garcia, Velazquez's agent in Puerto Rico, when Velazquez was just a teenager in jockey school and Cordero was nearing the end of his own brilliant riding career.

"Tico said I should take this kid to New York," Cordero said. "I was still riding and I said I didn't have the time. He said let me send you a tape of him riding."

Former baseball great Dick Allen, who is also a horseman and a friend of Cordero's, happened to be at the house when the video arrived and asked to watch it. Allen saw something familiar.

"He said, 'He reminds me so much of you,' " Cordero said. "He said, 'He's like a diamond. Do you know what he could do with him?' "

A week later, Velazquez was living with Cordero and his late wife, Marjorie, and their kids on Long Island, with Allen acting as his first agent. In March, 1990, Velazquez began riding at Aqueduct. He won his first race on an inquiry.

Although Velazquez wanted him to be his agent once Cordero stopped riding in 1992, Cordero wanted to pursue a training career. He put Velazquez on some of his horses, and once Cordero finally gave up training five years ago, he took over Velazquez's book. He has never stopped coaching.

"He told me one time that his father never told him how great he was riding," Velazquez said. "He never got a compliment from his father. It was always really hard on Angel. One day his father stopped being critical, and that's when Angel knew he was doing something good, even though his father never told him anything positive. I think that's the way Angel was with me. He never comes along and tells me how great I'm doing. It was all worth it. If he was hard on me, it was because he wanted me to learn."

One of the keys to any rider's success is his connection to the trainers with the best horses. Velazquez's affiliation with trainer Todd Pletcher has been dynamic for both parties. Pletcher has already set the Spa training record with 30 wins, with two weeks to go in the meet. Velazquez, having dispensed with Ycaza's four-week record, has Bailey's 36-day record of 55 wins in his sights.

"We have a diversified stable and he's a versatile rider," said Pletcher, who became familiar with Velazquez when Pletcher was an assistant trainer for Wayne Lukas. "He rides 2-year-olds well, he's good from the gate, he's good on the turf, he's good in sprint situations, he's good in route situations. I think he's a complete rider."

Velazquez has become a complete person, too, growing up from the 18-year-old who slept on Cordero's couch to a father of two. In 1994, he married Leona, the daughter of trainer Leo O'Brien. They had their first date in Saratoga 12 years ago.

"My wife was one of the big pieces of the puzzle," Velazquez said. "She was pretty much born and raised in racing. . . . You go home and you're having a bad day and she understands. It makes it so much easier to have that support."

From Cordero to Pletcher to his wife, Velazquez couldn't ask for a better team.

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