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Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.

Back In The Saddle

Monday, May 11, 2009

After dozens of dank, dreary, damp and downright depressing days, Mother’s Day dawned at Belmont Park windy, dry, and with a sky so blue you’d swear it had been freshly washed. In the barn area, roosters were crowing as if they were personally responsible for the change in weather; barn cats everywhere were content to simply stretch out in the warm sunshine, and exercise riders, always polite to those on foot, today added a wide grin to their greetings as they made their way to and from the track.

Yes, it’s a backstretch, not unlike dozens of others across the country, but it’s also Belmont Park, conceived more than a century ago as the most elaborate racetrack in the nation, home to “The Test of the Champion,” and possessor of an unparalleled place in history, both equine and human. At Belmont Park, you know you will see things you won’t see anywhere else.

Sunday morning, between the main track and the training track, a total of 276 horses made the work tab. Look to your right and there goes Preakness-bound Take the Points zipping five furlongs over the training track in 1:00.09, the second fastest of 38 works at the distance.  Look to your left and here comes Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Ventura in her first breeze in New York this year, covering five furlongs in 1:00.10. 

Jorge Velasquez
It was a parade of stakes winners, from Doremifasollatido (1:01.26) to Ariege (1:12.82), Taqarub (48.25) to Collegiate (1:02.26), and you might be forgiven if you missed Big Motor, a 5-year-old gelding who has spent most of his career bouncing around the claiming ranks and was recently haltered by Panamanian jockey-turned-trainer Pastor Mena.

His six-furlong move shortly after 9 a.m. was unremarkable in all respects save one: his rider, Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez.

It has been 12 years since Velasquez retired, 12 years since he had been aboard a horse going full speed. He climbed back in the saddle several weeks ago with the express intent of getting in shape for an upcoming Legends all-star jockey race, jogging a horse on the pony track at first, galloping a mile or so on the training track a few times and finally galloping all the way around the main track on Friday.

Standing on the TV platform by the winner’s circle Sunday, watching Velasquez heading toward the finish line, his bright red jacket that bore the name of 1985 Juvenile Fillies winner Twilight Ridge gleaming in the sun, it was impossible to keep from grinning. How many hundreds of times had I seen Velasquez barreling down the same stretch, the magnificent grandstand as a backdrop, only aboard horses like Phone Trick and Life’s Magic, Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony, Lady’s Secret and, of course, Alydar.

In my mind’s eye I could see Velasquez imploring Alydar for just a little more as he and Affirmed strained towards the wire in those final frantic moments of the 1978 Belmont, the crowd screaming, my hands shaking and my heart pounding as I watched from the stands, and I was there again, for a second or two, no more.
Aboard Big Motor, he turned and headed back to the barn. When I asked him later if the experience had jogged any memories, Velasquez laughed.

“No,” he said, “I was having too much fun being in the moment.”

But for me, for those few minutes, it was like being in a wonderful time warp, in a place where the past and the present, and the future, came together in the only place it could – Belmont Park.

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