In the Hall

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It was 1990. John Velazquez and I were kids in the jocks’ room, trying to make it in Saratoga. I think Snook had his tack, straight ahead in the old room, I was just down the wall with Denny McCabe and Chop Chop. I’d come in twice a week, spend four hours in the box and four minutes on the track. Velazquez came in every day, went about his business, quiet, focused, his only mistake was when he made premature five-wide moves on the turf (he learned).

It was a deep colony, divided by time served. The vets Jean Cruguet, Craig Perret, Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Eddie Maple, Jacinto Vasquez. The primers Robbie Davis, Bailey, Pat Day, Mig, Jose Santos, Herb McCauley, Randy Romero. The mercurial Chris Antley. The kids Raul Rojas, Dennis Carr and a few I’ve long since forgotten. And the newbies, Mike Smith had arrived, a year or so earlier if I remember and Velazquez trying to carve a peg strong enough to stay.

Angel Cordero blasted salsa music (nobody would dare ask him to turn it off), Cruguet, Velasquez, Maple and Mig played cards, Perret and Santos suffered in the box, some smoked, others played ping pong in the open air. I couldn’t understand how some of the guys could eat so much and still be so light. H. Bollocky Carr, Rooster and Louie Olah patrolled their turf. Meadow Star won the Schuylerville and Spinaway. Go For Wand won the Test and Alabama. Rhythm won the Travers.

Velazquez was quietly in the mix somewhere, not a journeyman in rank, but a journeyman in the making. You knew he would make it.

Some jump the bar, others raise the bar while jumping it. Velazquez has plied his trade steady and true, consistently doling out good rides at big moments for the right people. After 22 years, he is still going strong, still instinctive as a cat, his personal life and professional life working like oars at the Henley Regatta.

I like the way he talks about a race, when he gets talking faster and faster, and his hands start moving with the rhythm of his banter. Here’s an excerpt from his ride on Rags To Riches in the Belmont. Barely edited.

“I was at the three-eighths pole and I saw Curlin take the spot that he did, I was like (claps hands) I don’t think I’m going to catch him now, because he got to the spot, the sweet spot going to the quarter pole, he actually, he rode a really smart race. He got the spot and he took a little breather until he saw us. If you watch it, and I watched her over and over, he took the spot and he went to save his horse again, and I was like, ‘I’ll never catch him now.’ He got into his spot and now he’s conserving his horse to go. I was like, ‘you know what, if he tries to save some horse, when he tries to, to engage him early enough that maybe I can run him down, down the lane,’ and maybe my horse responds.

“When I saw him giving his horse a breather, this is my chance to try to outrun him, and keep him there and keep my horse in front of him, and it worked out for me. He was doing a smart thing, a very smart thing, giving the horse a chance before he takes the lead. It ended up being the wrong thing by him because I actually, I got the jump on him and kept that neck in front of him, kind of intimidated him a little bit, though, you know, and made it uncomfortable for his horse and I know his horse gets out, if I keep him there where he’s uncomfortable.

“You have to change it so quickly, and you pay attention, he was the horse to beat, so I was watching him the whole way, and when he got to the three eighths pole I was like ‘well I think I got him now; he’s not going to get out of there, then at the sixteenth pole he got into the spot, then I was like ‘how did he get in there?’ I’m up four wide looking at him, ‘you know, I got no chance, I’m going to ride for second. But not another sixteenth of a mile, I see him, he sat on him, ‘wow, this is my chance to outrun him, and maybe I, I will get lucky.’ And I got lucky.

“From one sixteenth to another one, you’re changing your reaction, ‘do I do it or do I not do it, do I take this spot or do I not?’ He did all the right moves, he’s in the spot that is a golden spot, now he’s going to wait there, right before the quarter pole I changed my mind, (claps) ‘I’m gonna go.’ It was just an instant that I was like, ‘well, if it works, it works.’ Sometimes you got to change it up as you go though, you know, it’s things that you have to take a chance, if it works you look great, if it doesn’t work you look like a bum.”

It’s worked for 22 years.