On Oct. 27, a gutsy gelding named Actin Good wired the field in the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III), part of the undercard for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Following that race, jockey Cornelio Velasquez posed for the picture and stepped out of the saddle without soiling an inch of his spotless white rain pants – quite a feat, considering Monmouth Park’s waterlogged conditions.
Two reporters clutching soggy notebooks followed Velasquez as he strode across the winner’s circle.
“Cornelio, how’s the track?”
Velasquez paused, rolled his eyes and gestured to the surface, uttering a single word.
Had it been anyone else, Velasquez’ brusque response and his following quick exit might have been taken as sarcasm, or impatience at an obvious question. With this jockey, however, the reporters shrugged their shoulders and walked away unfazed. It’s Cornelio Velasquez, they thought. That’s just the way he is.
Given his low profile in the racing industry, it is a bit remarkable that the 39-year-old Velasquez is wrapping up a career-best season in 2007. Velasquez is no charismatic self-promoter. He rides with little fanfare, does not regale the media with tales of his racing exploits. He will never come bounding through the paddock full of cocky exuberance, and there is nothing in his post-race behavior to attract attention – no jubilation, no Dettori-esque celebrations.He gallops out with a sober expression, hands still, head down, even after winning two Breeders’ Cup races - the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) aboard Kip Deville and the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) on War Pass - this year.
“I asked him, ‘Why not wave your stick or yell or something?’” said Richard DePass, the jockey's agent. “He told me ‘I won’t show off.’ He’s big on being humble.”
Velaquez does not grant many interviews, nor does he discuss his private life. If you put him aboard your horse, however, you’ll get a flawless ride – and for most owners and trainers, that is all that matters.
Talent, not personality, is what DePass has peddled since 2002. A retired jockey with more than 1,800 wins to his credit, he ought to know good riding when he sees it. When he picked up Velasquez’s book, their business began to climb. This is because DePass knows how to sell his client. The jockey may be a quiet man, he tells trainers, but man, can he ride.
“Before I took his book, I watched him come through a hole at Gulfstream and man, it was tiny,” said the agent. “I looked at the hole and I looked at him and I said to myself, ‘Now that’s an aggressive rider.’”
In the jockeys’ room, where most riders let down their guard, Velasquez remains stoic. He is not uptight. He just doesn’t fool around.
“He keeps to himself,” said Gomez, who rode with Velasquez at Saratoga this year. “He’s not loud or a jokester; he’s focused on what he does. He comes in and does his work and goes out.”
“He’s friendly, but not a super funny guy,” said New York rider Alan Garcia. “He respects you if you respect him.”
Befitting Velasquez’ persona, there is not much readily available information on his background. Even the New York Racing Association’s media guide sums his beginnings up with brevity: "Sister took him to racetrack when he was 15. Had previously ridden horses on farms in Panama."
Velasquez did attend Panama’s Jockey School in 1983. He rode his first winner in 1985, was his nation’s leading apprentice by the end of the season, and rode in Panama for 14 years. Although he attempted to launch a U.S. career in the early ‘90s, he returned to Panama to become its’ leading jockey in 1994 and 1995 before making the U.S. his primary home in 1996.
Velazquez’ lack of initial success in the United States and his introverted demeanor may have a common root. When he moved permanently to the U.S. as a 27-year-old, he could comprehend little English. Combined with his already quiet nature, the communication barrier made business hard to find.
“I was always translating for him; that was the only way he could go forward,” said former agent Frank Sanabria, who held Velasquez’s book during his first year in New York. “I don’t think he ever really tried to learn English. It wasn’t good for him.”
Small trainers put Velasquez on their longshots, but those horses didn’t provide great success. The big-time trainers were waiting and watching. Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas readily admits he was one of them, and while he praises the jockey’s ability, he is unabashedly honest regarding Velasquez’s communication skills.
“Did his lack of communication keep him from becoming one of the superstars of the jockeys’ colony? Absolutely,” Lukas said. “But owners and trainers mostly care about what happens on the racetrack. His ability to ride is what carried him on."
Velasquez’s grasp of the English language has not improved greatly in the past 11 years, but fortunately his business gets better every season. This year he led the jockeys’ colony at Saratoga, one of the most competitive meets in the nation. A lot of credit for his success is given to the dedication of his agent.
“Whenever a race is over you’ll see Cornelio, the trainer, and DePass,” said Garcia. “That agent is always waiting after the races to help everybody out. He knows his jockey doesn’t speak too much, and he wants to keep his business.”
“It’s not like my jock is ‘Mr. Personality,’” said DePass. “Before, nobody knew who he was, so they didn’t give him mounts. Now everybody knows he can ride but doesn’t have much to say, so they just accept him for who he is.” Today trainers across the country recognize Velasquez as one of the industry’s greatest natural riders and a seasoned veteran whose impeccable skills are second to none.
“He’s a warrior out there,” said Lukas, who uses Velasquez regularly. “The one thing he brings to the track is his consistency.”
“He’s solid and determined and consistently gives his all,” said Nick Zito, who trains War Pass.
So what put Velasquez on the road to success? Dedication and hard work, for sure - and maybe one thing, a small factor that is out of his agent’s control.
Racing luck, said DePass. That’s it. Superstitious, he would not otherwise attempt to explain why his rider is doing so well.
“We haven’t talked about it,” he said. “We just keep working and keep trying. We don’t want to break the bubble.”
No other explanation is needed. With earnings of $15,801,383 and 31 stakes victories garnered in 12 months, Velasquez doesn't have to say much. His ability speaks for itself.