Jockey John Velazquez Photo Credit: Chris Rahayel
By any legitimate standard John Velazquez is not only one of the best riders around, he is arguably one of the best of all time. A true great, and a leader and mentor to younger riders coming up the ranks.
He has two Kentucky Derbies. Countless riding titles at the toughest of meets in the country. Eclipse awards, leading money winner, Hall of Fame, the graded stakes record. There is not much room on his resume for more achievements.
Johnny won his first Breeders’ Cup race back in 1998 on Da Hoss. He has been winning them ever since with a total of 16, the most recent of which was the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf last year aboard Mysistercharlie who goes for a repeat this year with Johnny aboard again. She is undefeated on the year and will be one of, if not the favorite. She will have to handle Magical, amongst others, but you can count on one thing. Johnny will go in with a plan, well aware of his competition. Actually he will have three plans. Plan A, Plan B, and even Plan C. He’ll also be ready to improvise depending on what happens at the break, and in the first sixteenth of a mile. That is when he watches how the horses break, and what decisions the other riders make. He tries to be prepared for every imaginable scenario. This is what he does, and we are a week or so out from the Breeders’ Cup and he has already been doing it. He told me so, and this is how champions get ready to be at their best on the big stages at the big dances.
What did you learn about the “new’ Santa Anita dirt track when you went out there to ride for Bob Baffert and break the record for the most graded stakes wins in a year?
“The racetrack has a lot of clay, less sand, it is heavier but it wasn’t really deeper. Because it is heavier it can be tiring for some horses, especially if they aren’t fit or as fit as they could be.”
Did you find the track to be honest, or have any kind of a bias?
“It was honest. At least that day. I thought horses can win from anywhere. It can be different on Breeders’ Cup day though, and it can also change during the day as they run the races.”
“You always have to watch for those changes during the day.”
You rode Eight Rings to a wire to wire win in his last start, it looks like there could be more pace up front in the Breeders’ Cup, do you think he needs to be on the lead and what did you learn about him in that race?
“He is a very kind horse. Nice to ride and very talented. I talked with Bob before the race and we decided to put him in the race early because of what happened with him the time before. I put him in it right away and he went on. I think we only went 47 and change that day so it wasn’t that fast and that put him on the lead but I don’t think he has to be. I think he could be better with a target. I don’t think he needs the lead at all.”
Did you get the feel he is going to go forward off that race?
“Yes, definitely. We wanted to get a good race into him. Bob really had him ready and we gave him some confidence.”
Bast had to fight for her win. Would you as a rider rather see that type of race, or the one Eight Rings ran where he had things his way?
“I loved the fight. I like that in a horse. She really had to dig for it and she got really tired. I told Bob afterwards she got pretty tired on me and he said don’t worry about it. She’ll be ready. He did not have her 100% for two turns that day. I think she will be a lot better next time and she was very good the other day even getting tired. She showed she can fight for it if she has to.”
Code of Honor is heading to the Classic off two big races in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, what are your thoughts on how he is doing and will fare in the big one?
“You know, I was impressed and even surprised at how much he improved for the Travers, and again for the Jockey Club. He really got better each time. You never know until they face older, and he did that in the Gold Cup. I think a lot will depend on how he handles the track out there. He is still improving, he will just have to handle the track.”
Can he move sooner or be closer to the pace if you want him to be or circumstances call for that?
“Yes, if they go slower I can have him closer. I can also move sooner if I see they are going slow. Sometimes horses and riders you think will go, take back, and if that happens I can place him closer or move him sooner. He is still improving and a lot will depend on how he handles the track. He is very fit off the last two races at a mile and a quarter.”
You’ve won just about every big race there is, the Classic a rare exception. At this point are there any races that motivate you, or is it something else, what gets you pumped to go to work in the morning and in the afternoon?
The horses, that next big horse. I am very competitive. I want to win and compete, as much as ever. I’m always looking for that next big horse. It is very motivating, and it keeps you going.
“Fire, I still have it. 100%. It’s like a drug.
You’ve ridden so many great horses, and in so many big races, how do you prepare for the races in the Breeders’ Cup? Do you read the past performances? What is your mental preparation like? What does it entail? When does it start?
“For the Breeders’ Cup or any of the big races it starts early. I like to be very prepared. I have started already, weeks ago. I watch the horses and races and learn about the horses running. I watch replays too. I have been watching days of replays. When the day of the race comes I read the past performances but because of all the replays I already know something about most of the horses. I will study and look at the pace and how I think it will play out. I like to have a plan. I’ll have Plan A, and even Plan B and C depending on how things play out. It may look like there is a lot of speed and all of a sudden a few riders take back. You have to be ready to adjust. I watch the break and first sixteenth. Hopefully I can stay with my plan but if not I have back ups. Then it comes down to the horse being ready and able to do what you want them to. I am also ready to change everything if I have to. Things happen you can’t anticipate and you have to be ready for that and hope your horse is too.”
“I also watch the days races to see how the track may be playing. Sometimes I will adjust to that but you have to be careful and keep paying attention. It can change during the day, sometimes a few times.”
“You can’t assume it will play the same all day.”
Talking to Johnny V inspires a lot of confidence in him. Obviously he has the physical attributes but he is as well prepared as a rider can be. One thing that helps make great riders is the ability to put the majority of their mounts in the best position to win, and then leave it to the horse being able to close the deal. John does that consistently and has for years. He oozes the enthusiasm of a young rider but brings a wealth of expertise with him into the starting gate. That’s what you want in the Breeders’ Cup.