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.”
Wagner is an Academy Award-winning documentarian who grew up in Louisville. “My father grew up,” he said recently by phone from Virginia, “on Southern Parkway, about a block from the backside of Churchill Downs. He used to tell me stories about when he was a little boy, back probably in the 1930’s, 40’s; he and his buddies would go over to the track, and the people who worked on the backside would cut a hole in the fence and charge them a nickel to get in.”
Filmmaker Paul Wagner has a particular fondness for the Wood Memorial. In his documentary,Thoroughbred: Born to Run, the road to the 2009 Kentucky Derby begins at Aqueduct.
Wagner grew up in Louisville and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia now, and after decades as a filmmaker, he finally got around to making the movie that he’s been thinking about for decades. “I always thought that horseracing would make a terrific film,” he said.
Thoroughbred: Born To Run is about more than the Kentucky Derby; it offers viewers glimpses into many aspects of the racing business, including breeding, sales, and history. But Wagner does follow several horses on the road to Louisville, among them I Want Revenge and Imperial Council, both of whom prepped for the Kentucky Derby in the 2009 Wood Memorial.
“I feel a real connection to the Wood,” Wagner offered enthusiastically. “It’s an incredible race. I love the Wood as a prep; I think its timing is good in relation to the Derby, and I was pleased that we could get up there and film it that year. I loved that we could contrast Imperial Council’s group and David Lanzman.”
Imperial Council was trained by Shug McGaughey and owned by Sequoia Racing, a partnership based in Lexington and run by Reynolds Bell, whose Bluegrass roots run deep. I Want Revenge was trained by Jeff Mullins, a California trainer with a reputation as a maverick; the colt was owned by Lanzman, a former rock and roll singer based in Los Angeles.
The 2009 Wood lends itself to dramatic re-telling: I Want Revenge, the odds-on favorite, broke badly, got stuck between horses, went five wide and won going away.
Shortly after the race, the news broke that the scratch earlier on the card of another Mullins starter, Gato Go Win, had been due to a detention barn violation. Imperial Council, the second choice in the race, finished fifth, ending his Derby dreams. A month later, I Want Revenge, Derby favorite, was scratched on the morning of the race.
Asked about a pick for this year’s race, Wagner evinces Derby disappointment. Early in the film, Arthur Hancock ventures out to a paddock and hears from an employee, Everett “Powell” Charles, about the tenacity of a young colt who, in the middle of a storm, reared up, trying, apparently, to fight the elements. “He was pawing at the rain, like a boxer,” said Charles, awed. “This one’s a man among men,” observed Hancock, looking at the horse who was not more than a few months old. That colt was Arthur’s Tale, second by a neck in this year’s Wood. Arthur’s Tale is bred by Stone Farm and owned by Darley Stable; he was purchased for $750,000 at the 2009 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale.
“I thought that he was going to qualify for the Derby, but he came up a little bit lame. I was so excited,” lamented Wagner. “He’s named after Arthur Hancock.” So with his sentimental favorite off the Derby trail, who is Wagner’s pick in this year’s race? He goes back to the Wood, to the horse that beat the colt featured in his movie.
Wagner’s pick in the 2011 Derby? “Toby’s Corner,” he said.
Thoroughbred: Born To Run is airing this week on PBS. In the New York area, it airs on WNET (channel 13) on Wednesday, May 4 at 10 pm. Check local listings for your area.
Photos courtesy of NYRA, Adam Coglianese
Flashback to April 2010:
Todd Pletcher brought an immensely talented colt north from Florida to win decisively the Wood Memorial, then headed to Kentucky with the Derby favorite; there were whispers that Eskendereya was maybe, finally, the horse good enough to win the Triple Crown.
The status of the casino at Aqueduct was up in the air; an operator had yet to be named, nearly a full decade after legislation had approved the installation of video lottery terminals at the Ozone Park track.
Off-track betting facilities littered New York City, while the great expanse of Belmont Park sat vacant, awaiting the return of spring training.
My, what a difference a year makes.
As I sit here on closing day at Aqueduct, this year’s Derby picture looks as muddy as the rain-drenched track in front of me. Pletcher again came to the Wood with a Derby favorite, but this year his horse lost the race, and along with it the confidence of many fans and handicappers in his ability to win the Derby.
Last September, Genting Resorts World was awarded the VLT contract, and all winter, we’ve watched the slow dismantling of the historic Aqueduct grandstand; when next we are here for racing, the evolution of Aqueduct, first opened in 1894, will be well on its way: the casino is slated to open in the late summer, and when racing returns to Aqueduct in November, horseplayers won’t be the only gamblers on the grounds.
Since December, the usually moribund Belmont Park clubhouse has buzzed with activity as NYRA opened its own off-track betting facility, re-capturing revenue lost when New York City OTB shut down.
When we’re back at Belmont in a few days, a new food court, complete with betting machines and televisions, will greet us on the third floor of the grandstand. We’ll look forward to the Matron and the Futurity at Belmont this summer, instead of in the fall; and if you can’t get to Belmont, you can wager at Aqueduct, which will be open for the first time as a year-round betting facility.
But for all of the changes on the New York racing landscape, tradition still reigns. This week we return to beautiful Belmont Park, inaugurated in 1905, anticipating the 143rd running of the Belmont Stakes. We’ll watch the Kentucky Derby on May 7th, and we’ll wonder: in five weeks, will the winner come to Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line?
We can hope, even if that hope is tempered with realism. And we’ll remember that even without a Triple Crown winner, the Belmont Stakes, the Test of the Champion, has offered no shortage of memorable moments in recent years.
Rags to Riches in 2007, beating Curlin, the first filly to win the Belmont in more than 100 years. Afleet Alex in 2005, proving himself the horse that so many thought that he was, dominating after that treacherous turn in the Preakness. Easy Goer in 1989, healing his fans’ broken hearts when he came home to New York to win. And many others, going back through the decades, the centuries, back to 1867, when the Belmont Stakes was first run.
That was at Jerome Park, and it was won by Ruthless, a filly. In the ensuing 144 years, the distance of the race has changed, its venue has changed, its conditions have changed. Its place on the racing landscape, literal and figurative, has changed, particularly since the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont came to be known as the Triple Crown series.
In 1867, the New York Times turf writer said of that first Belmont that “a splendid race home ensued,” to “a most exciting finish,” as Ruthless won by a “short neck.” Here’s hoping that, at the very least, we are treated to the same on June 11.
Few among us can say that a jewel of the Triple Crown takes place practically in our backyard, and I never cease to be awed that the Belmont, that one of the most historic and important races in the United States, occurs at one of my home tracks. I feel incredibly fortunate that this place that is so familiar, that is often, despite its magnitude, homey, is, for one day a year, transformed into something that is shared with racing fans across the country, and I get to watch it happen.
And this year’s Belmont—much of the Triple Crown, in fact--felt, perhaps more than most years, like a tribute to New York.
Last Wednesday, the day of the Belmont draw, quintessential New York jockey Richard Migliore bid us farewell, not of his own volition, but because his body had finally turned traitor and said, “Enough.” Richie left us for a while to head west, but he came home, and we welcomed him warmly. We look forward to seeing where he’ll next land in our racing lives.
Five and a half weeks ago, New York-based Todd Pletcher finally, finally won his first Kentucky Derby. And crossing the wire behind his Super Saver was Nick Zito’s Ice Box. If Migliore is the quintessential New York jock, Zito’s the classic New York trainer (even down to his comments about pizza).
Two weeks after the Derby, his Jackson Bend finished third by less than a length in the Preakness, and last Saturday, yet another Zito trainee, Fly Down, finished second in the Belmont. Zito says that he’s the first trainer to hit the board in all three Triple Crown races with three different horses.
And winning the 142nd Belmont Stakes, winning, incredibly, his first Triple Crown race, was New York’s Bill Mott, with New York defector Mike Smith in the saddle. He won his first Belmont, too, back here where he rode for a decade.
New Yorkers are said to be among the most provincial folks in the country: we’re in love with our city and wouldn’t live anywhere else; we’re boastful and parochial and, oh, maybe a little arrogant. We are proud.
And once in a while, we have every right to be, thanks to the good people who sometimes get to take center stage in the place that they—and we—call home.
See you next year….