Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
“I guess it's meant to be that way. If it's not, it's not.”
A week after winning the Kentucky Derby, John Velazquez sits in the jockeys' room at Belmont Park, reflecting on winning his second Triple Crown race, on what it's like to win, for the second time, one of racing's premier events aboard a horse he barely knew.
In 2007, Velazquez won the Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches; he picked up the mount after her regular jockey, Garrett Gomez, had committed to riding Hard Spun. Last week, following an injury to Robby Albarado that resulted in his being removed from Animal Kingdom, Velazquez got on the horse for the first time and won his first Kentucky Derby.
He downplays the difficulty of riding horses for the first time in such high-profile races.
“We ride a lot of horses that we've never seen before, so we get used to it. It's not unusual,” he says, talking between races. “We get on two-year-olds we've never seen before; a horse that's run a few times is a lot easier to ride.”
He points out that it's not as if he hadn't prepared for the race; until the day before, he expected to be on Uncle Mo, who was scratched on Friday morning. “I was already prepared for the race,” he said. “I just had to look into the horse and study him a little. He's a totally different horse from the one I was going to ride; their running styles are different, and I had to adjust to that.”
Unlike front-runner Uncle Mo, Animal Kingdom comes off the pace, not an easy task in a 20-horse field. Said Velazquez, “Graham [Motion, Animal Kingdom's trainer], said that he thought that the post position  was a great one, and that the goal was to try to save ground and keep him out of trouble.
“It worked out that way. The horse was perfect and reacted to everything I asked him to. When we got to the quarter pole and he got to the clear, his ears went up, and I said to myself, 'I think he's full of run.' I couldn't have asked for a better trip, couldn't ask for a better horse. It was like riding in a car: he just did it very easily.”
The Belmont, which Rags to Riches won by a head over Curlin, was a different story.
“It was a battle,” he says. “She was running against the colts, she fell on her face at the start. We got caught wide, six wide the whole way around, although that's where they wanted her: they didn't want her to get covered up and get into trouble, to get all the dirt.
“Not only that,” he recalls, “but then she had to run for a quarter of a mile with probably the best horse there was at the time.”
“She was very game,” he says, admiration infusing the memory. “She was not going to let that horse come by her, and I was very proud of the way she responded.
“It was a really tough race, one of those really salty races, with a lot of good horses. She had to be really special to do what she did.”
Unsurprisingly, Velazquez won't characterize one win as more special than the other. “Both are great, both are memorable, both are special in their own way. I could never place one of them above the other.”
If racing success is a combination of skill and good luck, Velazquez is its poster child. Hard work and talent have brought him more than 4,500 wins and nearly $250,000,000 in earnings; he was a finalist on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.
But for the second time, luck – or perhaps good fortune – brought him to the winner's circle in an American classic, as he picked up a mount on a horse he never expected to ride.
“That's the only way I can think of it,” he says. “When it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you.”