SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The “V” in Johnny V stands for victory.
John Velazquez, affectionately known to his legion of fans around the racing world as Johnny V, has won almost 6,500 races, broken records with regularity, and set major milestones throughout his Hall of Fame career in the irons. Now another mark is about to be established as the all-time leading rider at Saratoga Race Course stands on the precipice of winning race No. 1,000 here at the Spa.
“It’s such an amazing resume that he’s built. But to think that he’s won 1,000 races at Saratoga alone is unimaginable. Really. This has to be the strongest jockey colony in the world and to be able to consistently have won at the level that he’s performed at for these many years is an amazing accomplishment,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame last year.
“It’s unbelievable. I can’t put it into perspective. He’s the all-time leading rider here at Saratoga in the first place, and now to be on the verge of 1,000 wins here in his career and still doing what he’s doing and riding at the level he’s riding at is truly unbelievable,” said Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, who competed against the 50-year-old Velazquez for decades, on NYRA’s Saratoga Live program on Fox Sports.
Velazquez came from his native Puerto Rico to America as a callow 18-year-old and began riding stateside in 1990. Before the end of the decade, he had achieved incandescent fame.
He captured the first of his five Saratoga titles in 1998, and his 64 victories on the season in 2004 was then a record. On September 9, 2001, he visited the Saratoga winner’s circle six times for a single-day record, and on July 27, 2013, he notched his 694th victory here to became Saratoga’s all-time winningest jockey.
In 2013 he was inducted into Saratoga’s Walk of Fame as part of the inaugural class with fellow riders Jerry Bailey and Angel Cordero, Jr., and in October of that year he became North America’s all-time money-earning jockey. He holds the title to this day with purse earnings of $455,188,608.
With 997 wins in the Saratoga record books heading into Saturday’s card and this astonishing record at hand, is he feeling any pressure?
“No. I never put those things in my head because whatever happens is going to happen. I concentrate on riding the next race as best as possible. The numbers come afterward. I never really put any numbers or any goals into how many winners that I should have or what I should be making money-wise. I’m concerned about riding the next race the best way possible. I think that’s why it’s worked so well for me,” said Velazquez, who has scored a record 48 Grade 1 victories and 198 stakes wins just at Saratoga.
Even at 50, an age when most professional athletes have retired to the rocking chair, he’s still at the top of his game.
“He’s always been a very intelligent rider and had the physical attributes to go along with that. To me, he’s riding every bit as well as he ever has. It’s remarkable to think that at 50 he’s still riding terrifically and he’s as sharp as ever. His experience is absolutely a factor. He’s literally seen it all. There’s no substitute for that kind of experience,” said Pletcher. “I think he’s still enjoying it and still loves it and that’s why he’s still out there.”
“Absolutely,” concurred Velazquez. “I wouldn’t still be doing this if I wasn’t having any fun. I really love the game, but the ups and downs are really steep and really deep. If you don’t love it, at least in my case, you wouldn’t be doing it.”
Pletcher and Velazquez have teamed together in the winner’s circle so often it seems as though they’ve created alchemy.
“We’ve had great success together and a great relationship over a lot of years and we’ve had huge wins together at Saratoga. This accomplishment is all about John Velazquez. It’s not about he and I winning together. This is a major milestone and personal achievement for Johnny,” Pletcher said.
But surely there are some moments that are bigger and more special than others for this team.
“I can think of a couple. One that comes to mind is Flower Alley in the Travers . That was the first Travers win for us,” Pletcher said. “We had a clear strategy going in. We were concerned about Bellamy Road being the lone controlling speed in the race and we thought we had to ride Flower Alley accordingly. We didn’t want Bellamy Road to get away with an easy pace. I thought Johnny rode that race to perfection. He turned up the pressure a few times along the way to keep Bellamy Road honest and was able to wear him down late.
“I think back to Lawyer Ron’s Whitney  when he set a track record of 1:46 and change at Saratoga, which still stands,” Pletcher continued. “I think of Left Bank’s Whitney  win also. There have been a lot with Johnny, but those three races were special.”
“I would agree with Todd. Those are the ones that really stand out to me when I was riding for him. They were horses that we loved, and they trained really well, and then peaked at the right time when we came to Saratoga. Those were really special horses. The Travers is a unique race and winning it for Todd was especially meaningful and memorable,” said Velazquez, who also won the 2019 Travers on Code of Honor for Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey and the 2013 Whitney for Pletcher with Cross Traffic and the 2008 Whitney on Commentator for Hall of Famer Nick Zito.
Many others have given Velazquez a leg up along the way as well.
“I’m grateful to all the trainers and owners who have given me these wonderful opportunities throughout my career. They put me in a special place and a unique place to have this opportunity now,” he said. “There are so many winners and so many good horses that I have been fortunate to ride here. I’m very blessed. I have to continue to say I’ve been blessed to ride all these good horses, and for the winners who put me in the position I am in today.”
Not only is he revered as a rider, but he is also respected for the man he is.
“Johnny is a great leader to the jockey colony. He is a great husband and a great parent,” said Pletcher. “He’s a terrific ambassador for horse racing. Racing is in a better place because of guys like him.”
“What Todd said is absolutely true,” said Jockeys Guild President and CEO Terry Meyocks. “Racing is in a better place because of Johnny Velazquez. I wish we had a hundred like him.”
Since 2006, Velazquez has served on the board of directors of the Jockeys Guild and for the last several years, he’s been the organization’s co-chair with Hall of Famer Mike Smith. He’s also been a longtime member on the board of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, and now he’s taken on more responsibility as a member of the safety committee with the Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act (HISA).
“Johnny’s all about class and respect,” said Meyocks. “On a daily basis it’s Johnny’s class that shows, and people all throughout the industry respect him. He stands head and shoulders above the rest. You have to include him among the top people in our industry. He’s a leader. He’s selfless. He’s trying to do what’s right for the jockeys, and for the benefit of the industry. He’s trying to grow the industry.”
Cordero, Jr. is credited with recognizing Velazquez’ talent right out of the gate and the Hall of Famer took him under his wing when he first came to America. Cordero, Jr. was his agent until about two years ago and they remain as close as family.
“Everybody looks up to him and admires him, both as a jockey and as a person. He has done a lot of good things for the jockeys. He takes good care of everyone. He has a good heart. You don’t often find them like that,” Cordero, Jr. said. “I’m not only proud of what he’s accomplished, I’m proud of the person he turned out to be. Some people are good riders, but they are not good persons. Some are good persons, but they are not good riders. He’s both, and I’m very happy he turned to be the best rider and the best person.”
Velazquez is humbled.
“I’m very flattered. I appreciate all that. I try to do my best and try to give back to the sport that’s given me a better life, especially for me and my family. I try to treat people with respect,” he said.
The 2022 Saratoga racing season has passed the halfway mark and heading into today’s card, Velazquez has tallied 14 winners. He’s only three victories shy of the 1,000-win milestone.
Will there be a fitting celebration with his wife, Leona, children Lerina and Michael, and his extended racetrack family and friends?
“No, no big party,” he said. “No celebration. I’ll just go home, get up the next morning and go back to work, just like every day. The next day is another workday.”
There should be plenty of those, and plenty more Saratoga summers, in John Velazquez’s future.
“I’m blessed with all the trainers and owners who have supported me all this time and even at my age of 50, they’re still giving me opportunities and I’m riding in the big races. That’s why I’m still around,” he said. “When the day comes to move on, I’ll know. But I’m still doing what I do best and that is riding horses. I’m really happy and healthy and I’m in a really good place and everything is good. Please God, keep it coming.”
NYRA Press Office
Photo: John Velazquez (Susie Raisher)