SEPTEMBER 8, 2012
Hall of Famer Velasquez mentors Monmouth apprentice
by Lynne Snierson
Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez are proof that one rider enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame can help another join him. Armando Ayuso and Jorge Velasquez hope lightening can strike twice.
Ayuso is an apprentice at Monmouth Park who has Jorge Velasquez handling his book, just as Cordero is the agent for 2012 inductee Velazquez. Jorge Velasquez, who became a Hall of Famer in 1990, was instrumental in getting the 18-year-old Ayuso to come to the United States from their native Panama this past spring.
"Another agent in Florida called and told me that there was a good bug boy who had graduated from the jockey's school in Panama," Velasquez explained. "So I called Armando and asked if he'd be interested in working together. I thought the Monmouth meet would be the best place for him."
When the phone rang, Velasquez needed no introduction."Jorge is very well known in my country," Ayuso said in Spanish as he does not yet speak English. "He is one of the best riders to ever come from there, along with Braulio Baeza, Manny Yzcaza, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Jacinto Vasquez."While the young jockey might have been impressed and honored that one of those five Panamanian Hall of Famers wanted to represent him, there were significant others who needed to be convinced that the arrangement would be beneficial.
"First I had to talk with Armando's mother and tell her that he would live in my home with me and my family. I had to convince her that we would take good care of him," Velasquez said. "Then I had to talk with my wife, Margarita, and that was harder. She wasn't too happy about it because in the past we have had other kids I was helping with their riding careers and they have been, let's say, ungrateful."
Margarita, who has been married to Velasquez for more than 40 years and has three grown children with him, wanted to support her husband and relented. It turned out better than expected.
"We took him in and we gave him love," said Velasquez, who also came to America as a green teenager to ride. "He has become like another son to us."
Nonetheless, Ayuso has suffered culture shock.
"At the beginning it was hard to make all of the adjustments," he admitted. "When I arrived in April the weather was still cold. I didn't really know anybody and everything was so different and strange. It's been a struggle, but now I'm used to it all. I want to be the best I can so I have no time to get homesick."
The young rider recently moved in with his cousin Elvis Trujillo, who is on his way to a second straight Monmouth leading rider title and also graduated from the Panamanian jockey school. But Velasquez is the one he counts on for career advice.
"I rode for 34 years and I think I know what to tell him about what he is doing right and what he is doing wrong," Velasquez said without any hesitation.
The longevity of Velasquez' career doesn't tell the whole truth.
He retired in 1997 with 6,795 wins from 40,852 mounts and he won close to 100 Grade 1 races. He was in the irons when Pleasant Colony won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and although he never won the Triple Crown, he did take two Filly Triple Crowns aboard Chris Evert (1974) and Davona Dale (1979).
Spectacular Bid, Bold Forbes, Desert Vixen and Fort Marcy were among his other champion horses, but Alydar is the one with whom he'll always be most closely associated.
Calling Alydar "the best I ever rode", Velasquez was an integral part of what is considered the greatest rivalry in modern Thoroughbred racing history. With a combined total of less than two lengths, Alydar and his jockey finished second to Affirmed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes when Affirmed captured the last Triple Crown in 1978.
Ayuso, who can yet count a single overnight stakes among his 39 wins from 305 career starts in 2012, is paying close attention to his mentor, watching film with him and trying to soak up as much knowledge as quickly as he can. The other riders in the Monmouth colony have noticed.
"Everyone in the room likes him because he's a nice kid and he's serious about this profession," C.H. Marquez Jr. said. "I'm happy to help him because he really listens when you offer advice. Some young riders will look at you like, 'who are you to tell me anything?' but he wants to learn and appreciates it."
Through September 3, Ayuso was sixth in the Monmouth standings with 34 wins from 265 starts, and business is brisk. Trainers Kelly John Breen, Patricia Farro, Eddie Broome, Ramon Moya, Juan Serey and Scott Volk are among those most willing to give the apprentice a leg up.
"I like that he's got Jorge Velasquez as his agent because it helps to have a Hall of Famer schooling him," Breen remarked. "The kid was pretty good when he first got here and he's improving steadily. He still needs to learn more about grass riding and get more polished on the dirt, but for a young rider, he has a cool composure about him."
Calling Ayuso "a natural," Velasquez said that he is a good gate rider, has good hands, a good seat on a horse, and patience. Still, he knows that when his charge loses his apprentice status this month, they'll both have to dig in deeper.
"He's built like a jockey, is a natural light weight, and has the talent to get horses to run for him so that will help," said Velasquez, who also represents 2011 Eclipse Award Apprentice Jockey runner-up Ryan Curatolo. "I'll take him to New York after the Monmouth meet and we'll have a chance to do good in the winter when all of the big name riders are gone. But we'll have to work harder for it to happen."
Velasquez won't have to dust off his famed left-handed stick.
"I hope that when I lose the bug, I can continue winning and I'll try my best. I always think about the future. I want to be a good jockey for myself and for my family," Ayuso said. "I'm very happy when I'm on a horse, especially in the afternoons. I love the competition, especially trying to out think and out ride everyone else so that I can win. Jorge always reminds me to get position, save ground, and save the horse for the end."
Cordero hardly has to counsel John Velazquez on riding technique these days, but that wasn't always so.
"In a way, Armando and I are like Angel and Johnny," said Velasquez. "There was a time when Johnny stayed with him and it was very much the same. I only hope we have the same results and one day I can see my rider go into the Hall of Fame."