Getting back in saddle gives Velazquez reason to smile

Recovered from spill, he'll ride in Belmont

June 09, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

ELMONT, N.Y. -- It's a cold, rainy morning, and the small Morning Line cafe inside the Belmont Park stable area is crowded with horsemen and jockeys seeking a warm, dry place for a cup of coffee or a quick breakfast.

In the back, sitting alone, jockey John Velazquez, bundled in a fuzzy gray jacket and wearing a Jockey Guild baseball cap, has a Daily Racing Form spread across the table. His hand encircles a coffee cup.

He looks up when approached and a welcoming smile appears on his thin face.

Velazquez, the nation's champion jockey in 2004 and 2005, is currently 14th, after being sidelined for six weeks with injuries suffered in a spill April 20. But right now he is happy to be back at the racetrack, riding one to three mounts a day, building his strength for tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.

In the Belmont, Velazquez will ride Bluegrass Cat, the morning-line favorite trained by Todd Pletcher, and seeking his first Triple Crown race victory.

"He's recovered a lot quicker than we had hoped," Pletcher said. "We thought it would be summertime before we got him back. But I think he'll be fine in this race, especially since he'll be able to groove through the middle part of the race."

The fact that Velazquez is here less than eight weeks after suffering a fractured shoulder blade, ligament damage, rib and lung injuries, is more than enough to make the jockey smile.

"I was told it would probably be the end of June, the beginning of July before I could start riding," Velazquez said. "And all of a sudden, my body just started to feel good. I started running in the yard with my little boy and my little girl and I just started feeling good.

"I realized my arm wasn't bothering me and I went downstairs and got on the treadmill and jogged half a mile, and I felt really good. That's what started it off. After that, I just started pushing it a little bit."

Velazquez, 34, rode in competition for the first time since his injuries June 2 here and won on Mr. Sam I Am. It was a momentous day for him, a 180-degree turn from the way he had felt in early May when the Kentucky Derby went off without him.

"I felt so bad, I didn't even care about the Kentucky Derby," he said, sipping his coffee. "I wasn't even interested."

Today, he is interested in the Belmont Stakes. His horse is the favorite among the 12 entries in what is considered a wide-open race, and Velazquez enjoys contemplating what might or might not happen. He believes he has a well-bred horse, but like nearly everyone else in the race, he must wonder until the race is over whether his mount can run 1 1/2 miles with something left for the finish.

Others might wonder if Velazquez has the stamina to go that distance so soon after returning to the saddle.

The jockey grins.

"You know, it's a little easier going a mile and a half than going three quarters," he said. "Believe it or not. I mean, even going seven-eighths, you have to ride the whole time ... from the gate to the finish.

"But going a mile and a half, they're going pretty easy, so you don't have to do much. ... You don't have to push so hard until you get to the half-a-mile or three-eighths, where you start getting in your position. And even then, you don't have to push so hard."

With all that time to wait, do jockeys - especially jockeys just back from a major injury - worry about an accident happening?

"You're talking about fear," he said, with a direct look. "It never enters my mind. Oh, it's always in the back of your mind. You know it's going to happen. You just don't know when. You can't waste your concentration on it.

"I mean, I got this injury when the race was over and my horse was galloping out. You help the things you can help, but when a horse breaks down and falls on top of you, you can't help that."

During his fall at Keeneland, Velazquez tried to help his horse stay up when he was already past saving. The result was the jockey wasn't thrown clear of his horse, but stayed with him when he came down and then rolled over on top of Velazquez's 5-foot-6, 109-pound body.

"Worrying about something like that happening before hand isn't going to help," he said. "You can't think about it and do your job. Fear? I fear more being nothing than being hurt. This is the job I chose for my profession. I can't worry or fear what might happen."

He doesn't look fearful. Sitting here in the Morning Line, his brown eyes almost sparkle in the gray light filtering through the small window, as he anticipates the weekend.

"It would be unbelievable to win this race," he said. "To win my first Triple Crown race, even without having had the accident, it would be unbelievable. These are the races you want to win. And I'm from here, so it would be extra special. And, to do it for Todd, who hasn't gotten one yet either. Can you imagine?"

Can Bluegrass Cat take them all to the winner's circle? Velazquez sips his coffee.

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