John Velazquez

Top Kentucky Derby Jockeys – John Velazquez

When it comes to big-time thoroughbred racing, very few jockeys come up as big as John Velazquez. This two-time Eclipse Award winner (2004, 2005) has won nearly every major race there is to win, including the 2011 Kentucky Derby on top of Animal Kingdom. Even with all this talent, it took a fair amount of luck to get into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

Born in 1971 in Puerto Rico, Velazquez began riding horses locally at age 17 and won his first race at age 18. By that time, Velazquez was already a protégé of three-time Kentucky Derby winner Angel Cordero Jr., who told Velazquez to seek his fortune in New York. He made the move in 1990 and won over $2 million in prize money in his rookie campaign. Velazquez topped the $10-million mark for the first time in 1998 and has yet to fall below that threshold since.

The year 1998 was also when “Johnny V” won his first of eight career Breeders’ Cup victories, the Breeders’ Cup Mile aboard Da Hoss. His best season was 2004, when Velazquez won both the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and the Kentucky Oaks with Ashado, plus the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Speightstown.

Velazquez finally earned his first Triple Crown jewel in 2007 when Rags to Riches took the Belmont Stakes, becoming the first filly to win this prestigious event since Tanya in 1905. He’d go on to win another Belmont in 2012 aboard Union Rags. Velazquez had never ridden either horse previously.

That was also the case with Animal Kingdom. Velazquez was supposed to ride Uncle Mo at the Kentucky Derby, but the horse was scratched. Then Animal Kingdom’s regular jockey, Robby Albarado, was injured three days before the race and had to be replaced. Animal Kingdom had never run on dirt before and was a 20.9-to-1 long shot when the final odds were taken.

Speaking of luck, Velazquez has the good fortune of working closely with trainer Todd Pletcher. Among the horses Velazquez could take to the Kentucky Derby this year: Archwarrior, Verrazano and Kauai Katie, who dominated the Grade 3 Old Hat Stakes at Gulfstream Park on New Year’s Day.