Eclipse Award winner John Velazquez is well-known for his successful partnership with trainer Todd Pletcher, so it is extremely fitting that his Derby contender this year come from Pletcher's stable. Cowboy Cal is Velazquez's mount, and if the jockey improves off his second-place finish aboard Invisible Ink in 2001, he'll have himself a winner.
Velazquez, a protoge of Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr., began riding in his native Puerto Rico in 1988 and moved to the U.S. in 1990. His breakout season, however, was 2001 when he became the leading rider in New York. It was a title he did not relinquish until 2005, when he finished second. In 2004 and 2005 he received back-to-back Eclipse Awards. He has won or shared 20 meet titles at tracks run by the New York Racing Association, and has seven Breeders' Cup victories to his credit. He also won the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) aboard Rags to Riches in 2007.
Velazquez is the chairman of the Jockeys' Guild.
Weight: 109 pounds
Born: Nov. 24, 1971, Carolina, Puerto Rico
Residence: West Hempstead, N.Y.
Family: wife Leona, children Lerina and Michael Patrick. Father-in-law is trainer Leo O'Brien and brother-in-law is trainer Keith O'Brien.
Favorite sport: “I do follow baseball, which is the only sport I follow. Sure, I’ll watch a little bit of basketball or football when it’s in season, but it’s not like I’m a huge fan. The other sport I like is boxing from Puerto Rico, but you don’t see much of that here.”
Favorite food: “Puerto Rican food.”
Career wins: 3,911
Most hated chore: “I don’t mind doing anything, whatever needs to be done.”
I can’t live without: “My phone.”
The fastest I’ve ever driven was: “120 miles per hour in Florida; I was on my way to work in the morning. I wasn’t late, but I was going pretty fast.”
Another active rider I admire is: “There’s so many good riders like Gomez and Prado, but a guy I admired from the beginning was Mike Smith. I always admired him and hung out with him.”
If I could trade careers with one pro athlete, I would be: “Jorge Posada, the Yankees catcher. He’s a good player and an all-around good catcher. He has style, and he’s a class act.”
One thing I wish people knew about jockeys: “It’s difficult to understand. Riding the horse is definitely not easy, it’s not like have breaks and a pedal to stop and go. These are animals and a lot of things that happen are out of our control. We can’t control everything and it’s easier said than done; watching outside it looks pretty easy but once you’re doing it you have to make decisions very quickly, and things don’t always go the way you planned.”
The best part about winning the Derby this year would be: “I don’t really know. I’ve always dreamed about it; I always have it in my mind. It’s hard to say. I guess the best part of it is that you’ve done it.”