Although he has won more than 4,000 races in an illustrious career, jockey Jorge Velasquez was haunted by one glaring omission. He had never had the recognition that comes with winning a Kentucky Derby or a Triple Crown race.
Today he rectified that oversight and showed millions of viewers the virtues that have made him so successful. He guided Pleasant Colony from 17th place through the heavy traffic of a 21-horse field, avoided every possible pitfall and won America's most famous race by three-quarters of a length over longshot Woodchopper.
Woodchopper finished three lengths ahead of third-place Partez, part of a nine-horse mutuel field. Classic Go Go, a colt who raced in Maryland much of this year, was fourth.
Pleasant Colony's stretch-running style was abetted when the many front-runners in this field engaged in a suicidal battle for the early lead. Proud Appeal, the favorite, and highly regarded speedsters Cure the Blues and Bold Ego all fell victim to the fastest pace in Derby's 107-year history. Proud Appeal finished 18th, Cure the Blues 15th, Tap Shoes 14th and Bold Ego 10th.
In fact, the first nine finishers were horses who stayed far away from the ones who were running the first quarter-mile in an extraordinary 21 4/5 seconds and the half-mile in 45 1/5 seconds. But Pleasant Colony was the horse best equipped to capitalize on the situation, covering the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02. b
The colt, owned by Thomas Mellon Evans and trained by Johnny Campo, came to prominence just two weeks ago when he won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct with a strong stretch run. That performance led Campo to exclaim, "This is the horse for the Derby -- no one else!"
Many shared that opinion -- the colt paid $9 to win as the second choice in the wagering -- but Velasquez's ride was as responsible for the outcome as the horse's superior ability. Velasquez has the sort of trip today that makes race watchers say, "He got all the breaks," until they realize that Velasquez's horses always seem to get all the breaks.
When the gate opened, most of the 21 horses in the field did what was expected of them. Velasquez angled toward the rail and let Pleasant Colony relax. Proud Appeal and Bold Ego went for the early lead, along with Top Avenger. Only Cure the Blues was doing what didn't come naturally. Jockey Bill 'shoemaker had been given the mount to try to harness the horse's early speed, but Cure the Blues was throwing his head and fighting Shoemaker's attempts to keep him around sixth place.
After the leaders had gone three-quarters of a mile in an insane 1:10 1/5, they were finished. Proud Appeal was showing none of the grittiness that had carried him to five straight victories this season. Cure the Blues seemed to be moving in reverse. And suddenly Partez, an unheralded colt, started flying around all the leaders, his purple silks a blur. The crowd of 139,195 let out a collective roar, and even the track announcer's voice betrayed a note of astonishment.
But while jockey Sandy Hawley was making this electrifying move -- "I thought we were a winner at the head of the stretch," he said -- Velasquez was just reaching the crucial part of his race. Up until then he had stayed out of trouble. "On the backstretch," he said, "I saw Tap Shoes and followed him for a while until he disappeared. Then I saw Flying Nashua and Angel (Cordero) and I followed him. I was just trying to stay out of trouble."
As Pleasant Colony advanced into contention on the turn, he faced a seemingly impenetrable mass of horses. Many of the other riders, such as Hawley, had taken the option of circling the field and losing valuable ground, but Velasquez steered Pleasant Colony up a path two or three horse widths from the rail. When the field turned into the stretch and fanned out, it was as if the Red Sea had parted in front of him on command. Velaquez angled out slightly and had clear sailing in front of him.
And then, the jockey said, "He took off running like a mad horse."
Pleasant Colony rushed up outside Partez and surged past. Moments later Hawley stood up in his irons briefly, misjudging the finish line, but insisted, "It didn't cost us second money." It certainly didn't cost him the record first-place money of $317,200.
Just as Pleasant Colony looked as if he might draw off to a victory with consummate ease, Woodchopper came flying out of the pack, gaining on the leader with every stride. Velasquez wasn't relaxing, not after finishing second in all three Triple Crown events with Alydar in 1978, but, he said, "I knew Woodchopper didn't have enough ground left." He was right.
The outcome of the Derby did not exactly justify the efforts of the owners who threw the race into temporary chaos on Friday by taking Churchill Downs to court to get their horses in the race. The lawyers stopped the track from barring Flying Nashua and Mythical Ruler, a move the track had taken to hold the size of the field to 20 or fewer. But today even the lawyers couldn't have helped Flying Nashua, who finished eighth, and Mythical Ruler, who faded to 17th.
Pleasant Colony had shown some promise last season and in Florida this winter. But he didn't look like a top class colt until Evans -- whose farm is located in Gainesville, Va., near Washington, D.C. -- sent the colt away from trainer P. O'Donnell Lee and into the care of Campo. He trained exceptionally well in New York this spring and looked impressive when jockey Jeffrey Fell rode him to victory in the Wood Memorial Stakes.
Velasquez had missed that race because of a rare suspension, and Fell was committed to Proud Appeal, anyway. Today was the first time that Velasquez had ridden the colt. The Derby looked like the beginning of a beautiful friendship. CAPTION: Picture 1, Pleasant Colony, under jockey Jorge Velasquez, captures the 107th Kentucky Derby. Woodchopper was second.; Picture 2, Pleasant Colony beats Woodchopper to the Churchill Downs finish line by three-quarters of a length.; Picture 3, It's top crop as Jorge Velasquez enjoys first Kentucky Derby bouquet of his career.; Picture 4, no caption; Picture 5, Pleasant Colony, with Jorge Velasquez riding, stands off charging longshot Woodchopper and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye to return $9 for $2 at Churchill Downs. Photos by UPI and AP