by Tom Pedulla
As John Velazquez pondered his riding career through the years, he kept two things in mind. He might retire soon after he turned 45; he would surely not ride past 47.
As Velazquez nears his 47th birthday on Nov. 24, there is no hint that a Hall of Fame career that made him the runaway leader with more than $395 million in earnings is close to ending. He is instead focused on reaching 6,000 wins – he was four victories shy going into the Nov. 16 card at Aqueduct – and on securing mounts in the new year that can take him to the Triple Crown races in the spring, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in autumn and every other major race in between.
“The day that I don’t feel I’m getting opportunities that I think I should be getting, and I’m not having horses that I can get excited about, then I’ll just walk out,” Velazquez said during an interview at Aqueduct.
He trusts that Angel Cordero Jr., his long-time agent and mentor, would never stand by and allow him to slip into mediocrity if his reflexes should dull or his instincts no longer be sharp.
“I’m like his father. I would be the first to tell him,” Cordero said. “But he’s completely on his game.”
According to Equibase, Velazquez entered competition on Nov. 16 ranked sixth nationally with $17,126,059 in earnings. He was winning at a robust 20 percent clip, with 147 victories in 739 starts.
Retirement? It would be hard for anyone enjoying that level of success to walk away.
“I’ll go month by month or year by year. I don’t know,” Velazquez said. “It’s about being healthy and having opportunities you think are going to bring you somewhere.”
He owns two Kentucky Derby triumphs, with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He is a two-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, prevailing with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007 and with Union Rags (2012). His 16 Breeders’ Cup victories trail only Mike Smith (26).
Velazquez yearns for more. In a sense, he is every bit as hungry now as when he arrived in New York from his native Puerto Rico in 1990 and began staying with Cordero and his family. He learned about life, riding and the English language, in that order.
Now, he realizes how powerful a hold the thrill of competition has on him. “Believe me, it sucks you in. In a sense, it’s like a drug,” he said. “I have a fire for riding nice horses and winning races. That’s what I think about.”
The risks that accompany his career have been driven home by numerous injuries, one of them life-threatening. When his mount in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies fractured a leg and went down at Santa Anita in 2013, he suffered internal bleeding that was so severe his spleen needed to be removed.