Winning jockey Velazquez completes trip from Kentucky Derby also-ran to Derby legend

A report by Mark Story for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

For anyone who is discouraged in the pursuit of a dream, the Kentucky Derby career of jockey John Velazquez now stands as an ultimate testament to never giving up.

Even as Velazquez established himself as one of the premier riders in North American Thoroughbred racing in the first decade of the 21st century, his luck in our nation’s signature horse race was all buzzard’s.

Over the first 11 shots Velazquez got to win the Derby, he failed every time. His personal Kentucky Derby race chart was filled with finishes such as 19th (three times), 15th and 10th.

Even worse, it seemed the Derby gods were determined to taunt the Carolina, Puerto Rico, native.

Three straight years — Quality Road (2009), Eskendereya (2010) and Uncle Mo (2011) — Velazquez was slated to ride a Derby favorite. Three straight years, those favorites had to be scratched due to injuries only days before the Derby.

On the day Uncle Mo was pulled from the Derby in 2011, Velazquez was 39 years old without a single Kentucky Derby victory.

At that point, people had begun to wonder if Velazquez would ever win the Run for the Roses. Then, the idea that he might yet go on to become one of the all-time great Derby jockeys would have seemed ludicrous.

On a gloriously sunny first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, Velazquez showed the ultimate power of refusing to give in to adversity.

Turning in an expert ride, the jockey booted trainer Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit to a gutty, front-running victory before 51,838 fans in the 147th Kentucky Derby.

“Johnny had him in a perfect spot,” an exuberant Baffert said afterward. “And when those horses came at him, (Medina Spirit) was all fight.”

Said Velazquez: ““You couldn’t ask for more of a horse. When you ride a horse like this who is competitive, you can’t ask for anything else.”

Coming to Louisville with an unsung horse but one that had shown a knack for keeping competitors from passing — yet had not demonstrated the kick needed to pass himself — Baffert and Velazquez arrived at the ideal strategy.

Out of the gate, Velazquez sent Medina Spirit to the front.

Even with moderately quick fractions (the first half-mile in :46.70), Velazquez and Medina Spirit led at every call.

In the stretch, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality all made determined pushes for the lead. Mandaloun may even have gotten a head in front at mid-stretch.

But Medina Spirit would not relent, and beat Mandaloun to the finish line by half a length in a time of 2:01.02. Hot Rod Charlie was another half-length back in third and Essential Quality a head back in fourth.

“Every time I asked him to give more, he kept fighting on,” Velazquez said of Medina Spirit.

The same can be said for Velazquez in the Kentucky Derby.

Now, the jockey who once could not sniff the garland of roses has won four of the past 11 Kentucky Derbies — Animal Kingdom (2011), Always Dreaming (2017), Authentic (2020) and Medina Spirit (2021).

Velazquez joins iconic jockeys Eddie Arcaro (five), Bill Hartack (five) and Bill Shoemaker (four) as the only four riders to have won as many as four Kentucky Derbies.

Having won the September running of the Derby for Baffert last year on Authentic, Velazquez is the seventh jockey to win the Run for the Roses in back-to-back years.

At 49, Velazquez is the third-oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby, behind only Shoemaker (54 when he won on Ferdinand in 1986) and Mike Smith (52 when he won with Justify in 2018).

“This kind of opportunity doesn’t come very often for a man like me, my age,” Velazquez said of his late-career success.

Said Baffert: “Johnny is so cool, just a total professional. I went to sleep Friday night and I didn’t even (worry) about Johnny. He’s so smart, studies and knows all the horses, I just told him to ride his race.”

Having booted the filly Malathaat to victory in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, Velazquez became the eighth jockey to win the Derby and Oaks in the same year.

A pretty incredible run for a jockey who once seemed so cursed at Churchill Downs.

The all-time leading money winner among North American jockeys with earnings in excess of $433 million to go along with 18 career Breeders’ Cup wins, Velazquez has seen his Kentucky Derby legacy at last rise to the level of his overall stellar career.

It was 2011, after Uncle Mo was scratched, that Velazquez’s Kentucky Derby fate flipped. Due to an injury to jockey Robby Albarado, he got the ride on Animal Kingdom — and ended up in the Derby winner’s circle.

Since then, Velazquez has become a regular there, a reminder that good things can come to those who refuse to give in to discouragement.

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