Four is Fine

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I hear Tom Durkin’s tone before I catch his words. You can tell when something bad happens, like when Doing Great died on the turn. You can tell when something good happens, like when Alex Solis slid through on the fence aboard Emerald Beech. You can tell when something crazy happens, like when the steeplechase race starts with 3 minutes still on the minutes-to-post clock. You can tell the enormity – good or bad – before his words come out, just by the lilt, the pall or the inflection. He’s the best in my lifetime.

Friday, Moshe Diane sprung to the lead in a $15,000 claimer, the fourth race on a gray Friday in August. I’m at the office, race playing in the background on my computer – the tapestry of Saratoga. I’m not watching. Then I hear it.

Durkin’s voice raises an octave and gets quicker, bouncier, you know something is happening, something more enormous than a $15,000 claimer. In the time I hear his tone and click the window to enlarge the video, I find out that jockey John Velazquez has swept the first four races. I catch the last sixteenth, recognize the shoulder pumping, wrist flicking, whip waving Velazquez in full flight.

I quickly scan the Form. He’s on a 4-1 shot for Todd Pletcher in the fifth, a 2-1 shot for Todd Pletcher in the sixth, a 7-2 shot for Tom Albertrani in the seventh and 4-1 for Dave Donk in the eighth.

He could go 8-for-8.

It was a novel thought.

David Cohen and Soinlovewithuam I take the fifth and Velazquez’s streak is busted, he winds up nowhere and goes winless for the rest of the day, but that’s not the point.

Velazquez, 39, moved within seven wins of his agent/mentor Angel Cordero for most career wins at Saratoga. He set a meet record, with 65 wins, in 2004. He won six races at Saratoga on September, 2001. He’s won four Saratoga titles already, spanning 13 years and is well on his way to his fifth. He’s won 25 New York riding titles. He’s won nine Breeders’ Cup races. He won his first Derby this year.

But those are simply numbers.

He rides cleanly. He represents the jockeys well. He’s straight and true, a standard. He doesn’t have bad days. Bettors love him because he’s consistent, you know what you’re going to get. Trainers love him for the same reason.

“I work for a lot of good people, they trust me, trust what I do, they give me the opportunity. I’ve been fortunate, little by little, it’s gotten better, I’ve been riding for the same people for 20 years, I’ve been riding for Todd since he went out on his own in 1996,” Velazquez said. “They have to trust you and communication, I can come back and say anything to Todd, say anything to Dave, say anything to Graham (Motion). When I screw up, I tell them I screwed up. You have to show up and do your job, I’ve been blessed. I keep it simple – you have the support, the trust and you get the job done.”

We met him in 1990, sometime after winning his first career race at El Comandante, Puerto Rico. Snook was his valet, had a bench, straight ahead in the old jocks’ room. He could ride, you could tell that right off the bat and you could tell he cared, wow, did he care. Fire brimmed from his veins. Cordero took him under his wing, but it was obvious he wouldn’t stay under anybody’s wing for long. His mustache was awful, his English was worse and his understanding of the turf course was a work in progress at best. But he had something, a spark and a streak, talent and desire. You knew he would shave, learn to speak the language and eventually know the turf course like Patton knew his enemy. You knew he’d make it.

He began dating Leona O’Brien, the sweetest girl in town. We worried. He proved we had nothing to worry about, becoming a husband and father with the same discipline he showed on the track.

The test is not about talent, it’s about tenacity. The tenacity to stick it out, ride through slumps, injuries and the ups and downs that come with life. Sure, he’s had his days when emotion won and he marched back to the room, dispatching reporters and fans. But in a way, I liked it, liked that he cared enough to get mad about it.

He’s grown up right in front of our eyes (hard for me to judge his maturity as he’s a peer), a young man comes to America and carves his foothold in the toughest jockey colony in the country, embeds himself in a place that takes no prisoners, spits out the misguided, the flawed, the underachieving quicker than a storm drain blocks debris. Yeah, John Velazquez has made it.

Velazquez didn’t go 8-for-8 Friday. Of course, he didn’t need to.