Rare are the moments in any sport when an athlete so clearly defines the essence of his art that in a sense he establishes standards for all those who practice it. In race-riding such moments almost invariably are the result of the tensions created in facing risks and the consequences involved in taking them. Do I go outside, where I lose ground but avoid trouble, or do I try to get through on the rail and hazard getting caught in a switch? Do I move now, or do I wait? Do I follow this horse, or that horse? How fast are we going, anyway? Should I take back, or lie close?
Over the past few years—in the major races where risks are magnified by the importance of the outcome—one can recall several instances when a jockey has imposed himself so decisively upon a race that the horse would not have won without him. Each performance, in its way, was a masterpiece.
There was Angel Cordero's ride aboard Cannonade in the 23-horse Kentucky Derby of 1974, with Cordero staying outside as the field stretched out, then seeing his opportunity and boldly seizing it, angling the colt to the perilous rail. Scooting along the fence in a rush, saving ground, Cordero sprinted to the lead on the last turn and rode on to win his first Derby.
There was Bill Shoemaker's ride on 6-year-old Forego in the 1976 Marlboro Cup, when the old horse looked hopelessly out of it turning for home. Forego was drifting out in the stretch, losing ground, but Shoemaker never tried to straighten him, perceiving that to do so might break the momentum of Forego's run. Under a flawlessly rhythmic, exquisitely timed ride, Shoe coaxed and pushed his mount and won by a bob of Forego's head.
There was Steve Cauthen's ride on Johnny D. in the 1977 Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. Johnny D. ran head and head with Crow through a slow first mile on soft turf, with favored Exceller and Majestic Light chugging along in the ruck, waiting to make their moves. Suddenly, with half a mile still to run, Cauthen said, "Go!" and Johnny D. exploded, opening six insurmountable lengths in one sustained burst of speed.
And there was, finally, this year's 21-horse Kentucky Derby and Jorge Velasquez sitting as still as a piece of statuary on Pleasant Colony's back, letting the colt relax on the outside, out of trouble, patiently waiting down the backside for the speed to fry itself and then making his run into the turn and around the last jammed bend for home. Masterfully, like a New York cabbie in a traffic jam, Velasquez watched the horses shifting before him, adroitly weaving the colt inside of some and outside of others until he came to a clearing at the turn for home. There was still a quarter of a mile to go, but Velasquez had the Kentucky Derby won by then. "It was a painting!" says Angel Penna, the great Argentine trainer.
Velasquez had been painting like that for years, though too few have noticed. He has won six New York riding titles since he started working the tracks there in 1968, and he is one of only four jockeys in history—Shoemaker, Cordero and Laffit Pincay Jr. are the others—to have won more than $50 million during his career. Velasquez has his loyal following, to be sure. "He is the greatest rider in the world," says fellow Panamanian Heliodoro Gustines, a former jockey who is now a trainer. But for years Velasquez has lived on the outskirts of fame, his mastery underrated or unacknowledged.
Surely some of this has to do with the timing of his arrival in New York and his reticent manner. When Velasquez came to Gotham, the turf was ruled by riders such as Eddie Belmonte—brilliant on the racecourse, high-living off it—and Braulio Baeza, the peerless tactician whose erect carriage and inscrutable visage gave him an aura all his own. Velasquez also shared the same jocks' room with Cordero, who sang on his way to the paddock, rode flashily and did dismounts like Nadia Comaneci.
Yet, even the years spent around the likes of Cordero and Baeza couldn't have prepared Velasquez for the Cauthen Era and the frustration of the spring of 1978. Velasquez had dreamed for years of winning the Kentucky Derby. In December of 1967, on his way to securing the national title for races won with 438, he said, "Of course I'd like to win 400 or more again next year, but if I had my choice, I'd rather win the Derby than anything. When you've won the Derby, everyone knows your name."
But year after year he came up empty. Not only did he not win the Derby, but he also didn't win either of the other two Triple Crown races, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. But Velasquez had good reason to believe that 1978 would be different, because he was coming to the spring classics aboard Alydar. It was Velasquez's longest season. Three times he thought he had Affirmed and Cauthen beat, and three times he couldn't get by them. He finished second in each race—a length and a half behind in the Derby, a neck back in the Preakness, a head behind in the Belmont. Velasquez had been involved in the most stirring series of duels in the history of the Triple Crown, but there was little solace in that.
"Each time he'd say, 'This time I'm going to beat him!' " says his wife, Margarita. " 'This time...this time!' "
"Very frustrating," Velasquez says.
The next year was clouded by charges by Jockey Jose Amy that Velasquez, along with Cordero, Baeza and others, had fixed races. These accusations were similar to those previously made by convicted race fixer Tony Ciulla. Velasquez denies the allegations. But lately things have been looking up for Velasquez. In the last few weeks he has won not only his first Derby, but his first Preakness as well. And what is most striking was how confidently he handled Pleasant Colony at Pimlico. During a dogfight with Bold Ego midway through the stretch, Velasquez put away his whip and hand-rode his colt to the wire. "What Georgie did from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole was remarkable," says John Campo, Pleasant Colony's trainer. "He put his stick down. That takes a lot of guts. You're not going to see a race-ride like that for a longtime."
"Pleasant Colony didn't need the whip," Velasquez says. "There's no use knocking him out."
Late last winter, when Velasquez's horse, the early Derby favorite, Lord Avie, hurt himself in Florida, Velasquez didn't even have a mount for the classics. Today he's odds on favorite to win the Belmont on June 6 and ride back to the winner's circle on America's 12th Triple Crown champion. He has been a long time getting there.
Velasquez was born in Panama City on Dec. 28, 1946, the son of a butcher who was separated from Jorge's mother before the boy was a year old. Jorge's father put his son under the care of Jorge's Aunt Francisca. Francisca lived with her family in Chepo, a small farming town about 25 miles north of the city, in a house with dirt floors, bamboo walls and a thatched roof. Velasquez recalls waking up as a young boy and seeing his aunt pacing the kitchen: "Walking around and around, worried because she didn't have anything to serve for breakfast."
Jorge started working in the fields at age eight, picking beans and tomatoes for $1 a day, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., under the enervating Panama sun. "I had to force myself to work so I could pick as much as a grown man and earn the whole dollar," he says. He worked for a bakery when he was 12, arising at 5 a.m., walking an hour to the neighboring town of Las Margaritas, where the bakery was located, and delivering loaves of bread there and in Chepo from a large bag perched on his right shoulder. "I got paid in bread," he says. "It was tough, but I remember that I never went to sleep without eating. I always had something in my stomach then."
At the urging of a friend, who thought Jorge could be a jockey, and with the reluctant blessing of his adoptive mother, to whom he had grown very close, Velasquez left Chepo when he was 13 years old and moved to Panama City to live with his father, work in the butcher shop and look for a job at the Hippodromo Presidente Remon, the local racetrack. Jorge was 5'3" and 100 pounds and kept telling Francisca, "I want to be like Braulio Baeza." It was not so wild a dream. Baeza, the leading Panamanian jockey at the time, had come from a background very similar to Velasquez's. Jorge had worked with his father for three months when he landed a job at the track with one of Panama's top trainers, Felix Rodriguez. "He reminded me of Don Quixote," Velasquez says. "Very thin." Rodriguez kept Jorge lean, too, paying him off in experience. "I was working for nothing, walking hots, mucking stalls, feeding, cleaning," Velasquez says. "I did everything. It's not easy to be a rider in Panama, but I wanted to learn. I loved it from the beginning."
He had to. His father gave him an allowance of 75¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a day, each night leaving it on the kitchen table, but Jorge spent 60¬¨¬®¬¨¢ just getting to and from the track. Pitching pennies ultimately saved him. "I got good, real good," he says. "I used to make two, three dollars a day pitching pennies." Meanwhile he studied for his jockey's license under Bolivar Moreno, a former jock who ran a school at the track, and picked up the rudiments of his craft by straddling a barrel with rope stirrups and reins. "It gives you the idea," Velasquez says. "You learn how to keep low, how to position yourself, how to hand-ride, how to hit a horse, how to come out of the gate. He told us how to save a horse—that it's not all jump from the go."
Velasquez hustled for chances to learn. Rodriguez gave him a broken-down racehorse named Susurro, a big bay with a bad leg, to ride and provide for. Velasquez panhandled for the horse, going from barn to barn to scrounge hay and oats. "He got leftovers," Velasquez says, "but I learned how to ride on that horse."
Velasquez was soon putting his learning to good use. Trainer Vasco Achong, who had encouraged Velasquez to stick it out when Jorge was considering going home to Chepo—"I couldn't get a mount," Velasquez says—gave him his first ride at the Hippodromo, on a horse named Gui‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o. There Jorge was, racing slowly on the outside, his reins flapping loosely, his horse going nowhere. As Jockey Antonio Henriquez passed him, he glanced over at Velasquez and yelled: "Pelao [boy], recoge las reindas!"
Velasquez gathered up his reindas, shortening his hold on the lines. Feeling his jock pick up the bit, Gui‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o grabbed it and took off. "It gave him confidence," Velasquez says. Gui‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o finished fourth, but he taught Velasquez how to take hold of a horse, transmit confidence through the lines to the bit. Velasquez's career was launched. He was a phenom in Panama City, just as Baeza had been before him and Pincay would be soon. By the time Velasquez started riding, in 1963, Baeza had already gone to the States—he won the Derby that year, on Chateaugay—under contract to owner Fred W. Hooper. Velasquez won 347 races in his three years in Panama City and either broke or equaled every record Baeza had set. His circumstances, meanwhile, changed dramatically. He was making $500 a week—they race only on weekends and holidays in Panama—sharing an apartment, driving a new white Renault and sending home money every week to Francisca. He no longer pitched pennies for lunch.
When Hooper contacted Velasquez in August 1965, offering him $500 a month to sign a three-year contract to ride in the U.S., he accepted. Velasquez rode his first U.S. winner on Sept. 20 at Atlantic City, and in the ensuing 17 years he has ridden more than 4,000 others. For all but the first four months of his career in the U.S. his book has been handled by Vic Gilardi, a peripatetic former produce dealer from Staten Island whose 16-year association with the rider is among the most enduring, as well as lucrative, in the business. Velasquez's mounts have won more than $5 million a year in each of the last three years. (A rider usually gets about 10% of the purses he wins, and in turn he gives 20% to 25% of those earnings to his agent.) "Our goal is to make that each year," Gilardi says. "And then relax."
There is no single quality to which one can ascribe Velasquez's uncommon ability to get a horse home. He is, horsemen say, an example of what they mean by a "complete rider," one who lacks no important dimension in performing on a racehorse. Calumet Farm Trainer John Veitch, for whom Velasquez rode champions Our Mims and Davona Dale as well as Alydar, says, "He has all the attributes of a brilliant rider. He has good hands, his use of a stick is superb, he switches his stick well and he's a superb tactician—he knows how a race is being run, what's going on in a race. He's strong and has tremendous endurance, whether you're going three quarters of a mile or a mile and a half. There's a oneness between a good rider and a horse: Cordero, Shoemaker, Velasquez—they're an asset to a horse, they move with a horse, in rhythm, as a unit. All brilliant riders have a combination of things that separate them from the merely good riders. It's hard to describe. It's like watching a world-class gymnast or a Baryshnikov."
Clues to two of Velasquez's more remarkable talents may be found in reading the names of Eclipse champions for whom he has been the regular rider. Since 1969 he has ridden the following top males: Fort Marcy, Hawaii, Snow Knight and Bowl Game. And he has ridden the following Eclipse fillies: Forward Gal, Desert Vixen, Chris Evert, Dearly Precious, Proud Delta, Our Mims, Tempest Queen, Late Bloomer and Davona Dale. Not coincidentally, the four males were all champions on the grass, a surface over which Velasquez is an acknowledged master. It's also the surface he prefers, and for a reason that illustrates one of his salient qualities. "He waits, he sees what happens," Penna says. "He looks—this horse moves over and he moves over." Which is why Velasquez prefers grass. On dirt, with clods flying, it's more difficult to see than on the grass. "The dirt isn't coming back as hard on the turf," Velasquez says. "You've got to be aware of everything. I'm always back there. I have to know who I'm going to follow. Split-second decision."
That he has ridden all those filly champions points to something else about Velasquez. Trainer Lou Rondinello, for whom Velasquez rode Tempest Queen, says Velasquez's style suits fillies well. He's a sit-still, patient rider with marvelous hands—"unbelievable hands," Penna says—and most fillies run better under that kind of handling. "You've got to get them to relax," Rondinello says. "They're more hyper than colts, and he gets them to relax."
"Fillies are more delicate and moody and you have to treat them right, with kindness," Velasquez says. "You can't hand-ride them too strong, you can't hit them too hard. You have to talk to them, baby them, have patience with them. Sit still."
It's his paciencia, Velasquez says, that has helped make him one of the most noted photo finishers in New York. And his nerves. "The secret of the photo finish is to have the nerves to wait to the last sixteenth of a mile," says Velasquez, "to save something and not get so anxious at the quarter pole because you think you're going to get beat when the other horse comes to you. When the other horse comes to you and doesn't pull away, that's when you have to take advantage and wait just a little bit more, a little bit until the last sixteenth. And boom! You have to have the nerves and the good timing to come back and boom! But first the nerves. Patience, patience. Wait, wait."
Velasquez has waited a long time, patiently, for the acclaim he has received in the last few weeks, for the Derby and Preakness victories and for the opportunity that will be his next week at Belmont Park. And he's savoring every moment of it. One evening last week Jorge was sitting with Margarita and their three children—Jorge, 10, Michele, 9, and Monique, 5—in their home in Woodmere, N.Y. The children had been talking about the Belmont, and Margarita was growing restless. "Georgie," she finally said, "I can't wait for the race to come so the whole thing will be over."
"Why are you so anxious for the Belmont to be over?" Velasquez asked. "When it's over, that's it. When it comes it will be over, and we'll have to wait another year. Don't be so anxious."
Paciencia, Margarita, paciencia.