Racing gods smile on Velazquez _ at long last

Associated Press
John Velazquez reacts after riding Animal Kingdom to victory during the 137th Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 7, 2011, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
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John Velazquez reacts after riding Animal Kingdom to victory during the 137th Kentucky Derby horse race …

The racing gods owed him.

Never mind that John Velazquez had plenty of reasons to think otherwise, even after a fellow jockey's misfortune cleared the way for him to climb aboard Animal Kingdom on the eve of the Kentucky Derby.

"I guess when it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you," Velazquez said, his grin for once, nearly as wide as he was tall. "No matter what."

That rarely rang truer than it did across this aging racetrack for two minutes on a cool, overcast late afternoon. Velazquez has been at the top of his trade for at least a decade, but he was an unlikely and even more unlucky 0-for-12 in the one race that mattered most.

For three years running, Velazquez arrived in Louisville with a mount that had favorite written all over him, only to see each one erased days before the race. This time around, it was Uncle Mo, the juvenile champion sidelined by a bad stomach just 36 hours before the gate was set to open. The year before, it was Eskendereya, an impressive beast felled by a leg injury that turned out to be a career-ender. The year before that, it was Quality Control.

The strange thing is that Velazquez had already established himself as the No. 1 jockey for the No. 1 operation in the game — the mega-stable run by trainer Todd Pletcher, who knew a thing or two about Derby droughts himself. Uncle Mo and Eskendereya were his horses, too. But plenty of that pain was eased last year when Super Saver, another of the seven horses Pletcher brought to Churchill Downs, stormed down the rail with Calvin Borel in the saddle to steal the race and snap the trainer's own 0-for-24 streak at this place.

And here's where the story takes a final twist.

Robby Albarado was supposed to ride Animal Kingdom, but got his nose busted earlier in the week when he was thrown off his horse, then kicked in the face. When Uncle Mo was scratched Friday morning, that freed Velazquez up as a potential replacement. That also left it up to Barry Irwin, a former racing writer who now heads the group that owns Animal Kingdom, to decide whether a switch was warranted.

"If Robby rode on Friday, then we were going to go with him," Irwin said. "But if he didn't, we would consider that to be a telltale sign, because that was just a risk that we weren't prepared to take.

"We just didn't dump Robby just to get Johnny. We wouldn't do anything like that," he added. "This thing just came up bad, and believe me we will find a way to make this up to him."

They better.

"The reason I took off was to get well for today. It kind of backfired on me," Albarado said after climbing off a horse in the race after the Derby. "It's going to take some time to go gather this together."

The two jockeys crossed paths only once after the switch, earlier Saturday, when Velazquez asked his fellow jock how he was holding up and Albarado said only, "You're riding a good horse." Velazquez said that depending on how good, he might have a little something for Albarado the next time they met.

"I told Robby if we win this race," Velazquez recalled, "'I'm going to take care of you."

But that was only because the he took care of the important business first.

Breaking from the No. 16 post, he guided Animal Kingdom to the back of first flight and sat four lengths off the lead heading into the first turn. Before the race, trainer Graham Motion had kept the instructions as simple as possible: Stay out of trouble, don't give up too much ground, save him for a push at the end.

As little as Velazquez knew about the colt, he turned out to be a quick study. As the stampede pounded down the opening stretch, he sensed he was going to be in the mix by the finish.

"He gave me so much confidence going into that first turn ... it's like you have the horse to get out of trouble and get to the spot you want," he recalled. "And when I asked him to run, he was there for me. It's a feeling you can't describe."

It might not be the only exhilarating moment Velazquez knows this month. He's a finalist for the Hall of Fame, with the results announced May 13. A week later, he will be getting ready for the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, with racing's version of a quarterback controversy: whether to stay in the saddle for Animal Kingdom or go back to Uncle Mo.

"I think I'm going to cross that bridge when we get there," he said, grinning again.

"No, seriously, I think this horse, the way it runs today, it would be a very hard decision for me to get and go to another one. That's just the way it is."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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