The Southern California jockey colony just got significantly deeper with the announcement that Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez is moving his tack to Santa Anita for the upcoming 2021-22 Winter/Spring Meet.
This marks the first time in Velazquez’s decorated 32-year career he’s riding full-time in Southern California. A stalwart of the New York riding colony, Velazquez has been an East Coast riding presence since coming to the United States from his native Puerto Rico in 1990.
“We’re looking to winter out there instead of going to Florida. We’re looking for some sort of change,” Velazquez’s agent, Ron Anderson, told Santa Anita’s Mike Willman. “Johnny’s at a point (where) we’re looking for good horses, graded stakes and the like … He’ll be in and out (of town) a little bit, but something different. I think he’s very excited about being there.”
Velazquez’s western migration is a significant move that makes up for recent defections. Riders such as multiple Santa Anita riding champion Rafael Bejarano, Joe Talamo, and Drayden Van Dyke have all moved East in the last three years, seeking more opportunities at tracks such as Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, and Keeneland.
Velazquez takes on Prat, Bravo, Smith, Espinoza, et-al
Even with that, Velazquez joins a colony rich in young and veteran talent. Waiting for him are Flavien Prat, Umberto Rispoli, Abel Cedillo, Juan Hernandez, and Joe Bravo, himself an East Coast ex-pat. And along with that quintet, there’s Velazquez’s fellow Hall of Famers: Victor Espinoza, Mike Smith, and the resurgent Kent Desormeaux.
In Velazquez, Southern California gets a Hall of Fame rider who is Thoroughbred racing’s all-time money-winning jockey. Velazquez’s mounts earned more than $446 million. The 50-year-old Velazquez won 6,357 races through Wednesday, including four Kentucky Derbies, the last two aboard Medina Spirit this year and Authentic last year.
It also includes two Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches in 2007 and Union Rags in 2012. Velazquez also captured 18 Breeders’ Cup races, including the 2020 Classic aboard Authentic. He’s won three Breeders’ Cup Miles and three Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, along with the Turf, Distaff, and Juvenile Fillies twice each.
Two Eclipse Awards, trainer confidence
Velazquez led American jockeys in earnings in 2004 and 2005, capturing Eclipse Awards as the Champion Jockey of the Year in both seasons.
It’s a testament to Velazquez’s big-race riding skill and the faith trainers have in him that in 2020, he ranked 71st in wins among North American jockeys (101). Yet, he was fifth in earnings, with his mounts earning $15,250,515.
“He’ll be riding for everybody: Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, Richie Baltas, Dick Mandella, everybody,” Anderson said. “I’ll piece that together as we go. The first condition book came out (Monday) and I’ve already got a few guys that are knocking at the door.”
Velazquez knows Santa Anita
It’s not like Santa Anita is foreign soil for Velazquez. In 2019, he picked up his 661st graded-stakes victory when he piloted Bast to the Santa Anita winner’s circle in the Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes. That sent Velazquez past Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey as the all-time leading graded-stakes winning rider.
He also earned the 2009 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, a prestigious honor given to the Thoroughbred jockey in North America who demonstrates high standards of personal and professional conduct both on and off the track. Velazquez currently serves as chairman of the National Jockeys’ Guild and sits on the board of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
“He’s one of the greatest guys ever. What he does for the Jockeys’ Guild and all the time he puts in, the meetings and following up with individual riders through a lot of situations … he’s just different,” Anderson said. “He’s really, really a special person at the end of the day. He’s positive, he’s classy, he’s considerate, he’s kind to everybody.”
It’s not like Velazquez won’t be a presence in major stakes races on both coasts. Anderson, who also represents Joel Rosario, said Velazquez will ride in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational at the end of January at Gulfstream Park. Expect to see him play a prominent role in the Triple Crown season.