It was only a decade ago when we all wondered whether the two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider John Velazquez would break through and win his first Kentucky Derby. Now it is a question of how many victories the four-time winner will earn.
There might be younger jockeys who win more races day in and day out, but there is no current rider who is better in a big race than the 49-year-old Velazquez. Affectionately known as “Johnny V,” he has effectively replaced “Money” Mike Smith as America’s top rider in the most prestigious of races.
This belief was never more on display than this past weekend, when the Hall of Fame rider expertly guided a pair of horses to hard-fought victories in two of America’s most prestigious races. His rides aboard Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby and Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks were nothing short of masterful.
For much of his career, the Puerto Rico-born jockey has been a featured jockey for the strong Todd Pletcher stable, but in recent years the veteran rider has also picked up the mount on some of the best from the barn of Bob Baffert. The union has proved to be lightning in a bottle.
In two consecutive runnings of the Kentucky Derby, Velazquez was the smartest rider on the racetrack. Last year, he hustled Authentic to the early lead before using all of his veteran guile to make sure the speedy 8-1 shot had plenty left in the tank for the stretch challenge of the heavily favored Tiz the Law.
On Saturday, it was Medina Spirit’s turn to benefit from the skill of Velazquez. Sent off as the sixth choice in the field of 19, the son of Protonico emulated Authentic of last year. Velazquez sent his horse in the first few strides out of the gate, got to the lead, and then used all his experience and talent to coax 10 furlongs out of the 12-1 shot.
It was the plan, and it was executed to perfection by horse and rider. Knowing when to push and when to relax his mount is a skill, and one that few human beings will ever possess to the level of Johnny V. Ever humble, he gives all credit to the horse.
“I was so proud of him, because we got to the 1/16 pole and he keep putting the ears down and keep fighting,” said Velazquez. “I think I was more tired than him because I kept riding much harder than he was going to. Like I said, I was not afraid. He was fighting.”
Both Authentic and Medina Spirit had only one way to win the Kentucky Derby and Baffert and Velazquez knew it. Now the pair can enjoy back-to-back wins in the big one – Baffert’s seventh overall and the fourth for Velazquez.
“I am blessed with the opportunities I have been given,” said Velazquez. “I never thought in my wild dreams that I would win four Derbies. I'm also like Bob. I never look at numbers. Everybody always asks: Can you believe, Johnny, you are leading money-earner, and all this stuff. I never look at that. Or Grade 1 winner or most Grade 1 stakes winner – I never in my career looked at it like that. You can ask my wife.”
The day before, he rode a filly with very little early speed. The plan to win the Kentucky Oaks was far different for the undefeated, Todd Pletcher-trained Malathaat. She would need to rally, and it would be up to Johnny V to work out the trip in the big field.
Malathaat did not have the best of breaks in the Oaks, but Velazquez was able to thread the needle with the 5-2 favorite. And by the time the field of 13 hit the first turn, he had his filly in wonderful position.
Relaxed on the outside and in sixth place early, it was the best of positions for the daughter of Curlin to use her strong finishing ability. From there, Velazquez was able to keep his filly out of trouble, poised to make her move on the far turn. Malathaat did that, and the race was on down the stretch.
The previously unbeaten Search Results was a stubborn rival, but the rally of Malathaat, under Johnny V, was irresistible.