Like most Southern California horse racing fans, Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is eagerly anticipating Monday’s opening day at Santa Anita.
This will be only Velazquez’s second winter riding full time at Santa Anita, but he’s well aware of why the track is often referred to as The Great Race Place.
“It’s a very historic place with a lot of good racing, a lot of history, so it’s one of those places that is special,” the 51-year-old Puerto Rican native said during a phone interview Thursday. “It’s a special day for everyone. It’s a big day with a lot of good racing. That makes it special.”
What makes Velazquez special is his professionalism on and off the track. He’s the top money-earning jockey of all time (more than $461 million), won the Kentucky Derby three times, is second in Breeders’ Cup victories (19) behind Mike Smith’s 26, and was awarded the 2009 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award by a vote of his peers.
Velazquez has done it all, but he’s not ready to hang ’em up anytime soon. He’s still searching for another special horse that will give him more Triple Crown and/or Breeders’ Cup victories.
“I go month by month,” he said. “As long as I’m healthy, that’s the most important thing. The fire is there, and riding good horses kind of keeps you in the game and interested. That’s the thing. Having fun, doing the things you want to do, and finding that next good horse that’s going to put that fire (in your belly). As long as I’m healthy and riding good horses, I think I’ll stick around.”
That next big horse could be Arabian Knight, a 2-year-old son of Uncle Mo who romped by 7¾ lengths in his debut at Keeneland on the Breeders’ Cup undercard Nov. 5. The $2.3 million purchase led gate to wire while carving out fractions of 22.47, 45.78 and 1:09.82 en route to a 1:21.98 clocking for 7 furlongs.
“He is a superstar in the making,” the Bloodhorse quoted Jimbo Gladwell of Top Line Sales on the day the colt was sold.
“If he can come back and run like that and keep improving, he can be a very, very good horse,” he said. “Like anything, they have to stay sound and you have to see when they come back if they can repeat those kind of races and improve. He’s definitely a very talented horse. You get excited about looking forward to something really good. And I hope he can be one of those.”
Can he go two turns? Velazquez has little doubt.
“The way he galloped out after he won, it was very impressive,” he said.
Velazquez plans to stick around at Santa Anita until Keeneland begins its spring meet April 7. Until then, out-of-town assignments notwithstanding, he’ll be competing against a top jockey colony that includes riders like Flavien Prat, Juan Hernandez, Umberto Rispoli, Mike Smith and Ramon Vazquez on a daily basis. That’s where the competitive juices kick in.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t competitive,” Velazquez said. “You have to be competitive everywhere you go. There’s a room full of jockeys that are very competitive as well. That’s what makes our game very interesting, having so many good riders in Southern California and the United States. Wherever you go, you have to be at your best and be competitive. That’s what makes it really exciting for us. It’s what makes horse racing interesting.”
As well as special horses like Rags to Riches, who gave Velazquez his first Triple Crown victory when she became the first filly in more than a century to win the Belmont Stakes in 2007.
“That was very special to me … winning it against a special horse like Curlin,” he said. “To run the way she did and beat the colts, definitely she’s a standout by far.”
Velazquez has ridden so many special horses that it’s difficult for him to separate them, but Derby winners Animal Kingdom (2011), Always Dreaming (2017) and Authentic (2020) stand out. As does Medina Spirit, who won the 2021 Derby but was later disqualified following a positive drug test.
“I’ve always counted four, with Medina Spirit, but they’re definitely all special,” he said.
He’d like to add to the total.
“Any more Breeders’ Cup wins or Derbies. Those are the ones,” Velazquez said. “The Triple Crown races, you try to get another of those. If I could, that would be great.”
Don’t bet against him.
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73