By Karen M. Johnson @WriterHorses

CARPE DIEM - Claiborne Breeders' Futurity Gr I - 10-04-14 - R08 - KEE - John VelazquezJohn Velazquez’s first trip to ride at Saratoga Race Course in 1990 is a memory so precisely etched in his mind, the jockey recalls it as if it happened yesterday.

“The first year I went I was with Angel [Cordero] and we flew to Saratoga from LaGuardia [Airport], and he was telling me everything about Saratoga,” Velazquez said in a recent interview with Jockey Talk 360. “He definitely painted the picture to me, from day one, that it was a special place. He explained that I needed to concentrate and do the best I could do in Saratoga, because it’s a place where everyone is watching you. Angel said, ‘If you do well in Saratoga, it will carry you, and you can do well the whole year-round.’”

At the time of their conversation, Cordero, who later retired from riding in 1995, owned the most wins at Saratoga. In 2004, Jerry Bailey surpassed Cordero, and Velazquez took over as the all-time leading rider at the boutique meet in 2013.

The day Velazquez achieved the feat, by visiting the Saratoga winner’s circle for the 694th time, Cordero, who became the rider’s agent in 1998, told a local newspaper: “[Velazquez] should be proud because this is the meeting you’re really being looked at. You can be leading rider at Indiana 100 times and nobody remembers, but if you do it in Saratoga, this is the place everybody wants to be. This is the place where they give you the most popularity for being leading rider.”

The 43-year-old Velazquez enters the 2015 meet, which opens Friday, with 769 career wins from 4,626 mounts at Saratoga. His mounts have finished first in 143 stakes there.

On a July afternoon at Belmont Park, less than two weeks to the start of Saratoga, Velazquez’s face lights up when he is handed an Equibase print-out of his career stats at the upstate New York track. In that moment, nostalgia is written all over the face of the rider who has been on record saying he will contemplate retiring after reaching his 45th birthday in November of next year.

“Saratoga has been a most special place for me,” said Velazquez, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in a ceremony there in 2012. “Not only as a work place, but the place where I first started dating my wife, Leona. This November, we will be married 21 years.”

The last time Velazquez led the standings at Saratoga was 2011. Since then, the retired Ramon Dominguez won the riding title in 2012, and Javier Castellano snagged the title the last two seasons. Velazquez, however, has still been very much in the mix. He has ridden a total of 31 winners in stakes there over the course of the past three years, and ranked second and third, respectively, in overall wins at the past two meets.

There has been a steady stream of good riders to come through Saratoga since Velazquez first began riding there 26 years ago. Whether they stay for the whole meet, or come to ride in a single stakes race, the best of the riding colonies in Southern California and Kentucky routinely descend upon Saratoga and take their best shots.

“Every year, there are new faces,” Velazquez said. “When Jerry Bailey was riding, there were new faces coming out, including myself, who were trying to break through and make an impression. It seems like everyone tries their best at Saratoga.

“Saratoga has always been a difficult place to win races. You’ve got to be an your A game,” he continued. “Obviously, you have to have the horses too. Let’s put it this way: If you get the opportunity with the horses, make sure you make the most out of it.”

And so, 26 years later, his mentor’s words are still resonating with Velazquez.