After Jorge Velasquez had ridden Pleasant Colony to his victory in the Kentucky Derby, he was ushered to the Churchill Downs press box and surrounded by reporters. He enjoyed about two minutes in the limelight. Then trainer Johnny Campo joined him, monopolized the microphone and declared, "Any jockey could win on this horse."
Velasquez had heard similar remarks before. He had won more than 4,000 races in his career without getting much acclaim, and he won them with such quiet efficiency that few people recognized his special gifts.
But while Campo remains the center of attention as Pleasant Colony races through the Triple Crown series, this has been Velasquez's triumph as much as the trainer's. There are times when a jockey is merely a passenger abroad a superior horse; when Ron Franklin won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Spectacular Bid, almost any semicompetent rider in America could have taken his place with similar results.
But occasionally a jockey's role is integral. This year's Derby and Preakness demanded special skills, and they happened to be the very skills that have made Velasquez consistently successful since he broke into the sport in Panama in 1963.
Velasquez is harder to appreciate than more flamboyant riders because his principal virtue is what he doesn't do: he doesn't make tactical errors or let his horses get into trouble. When a horse wins a race after a routine, uneventful trip, nobody thinks to praise the jockey. But after Pleasant Colony had a routine, uneventful trip in a chaotic, 22-horse Kentucky Derby, it became apparent that Velasquez has turned staying out of trouble into an art.
After the race, he talked about his ride in terms that few racetrackers have ever heard. In the course of his rally from 17th place, he said that he had followed in the path of Tap Shoes for a while, then had let Flying Nashua run interference for him. The way horses get in trouble, Velasquez explained, is to be trapped behind rivals who are running too slowly.
"To stay out of trouble with a horse who comes from behind," he said, "You've got to find the riders who have the most horse under them. You can tell by the hold the rider has, by seeing if his reins are tight. That's why we didn't get bothered in the Derby."
Riding a stretch-runner like Pleasant Colony, Velasquez said, he has one other major concern besides traffic problems: the pace. He can't let the leaders get too far in front of him is they are running too easily, but judging how fast they are going is more of an instinct than a definable skill.
Somehow, Velasquez sensed the fast pace in the Kentucky Derby and let Pleasant Colony drop some 20 lengths behind. Somehow, he perceived the slower pace in the Preakness and stayed closer to the leaders than anyone had expected. But of the Triple Crown races, he believes the Belmont is the ultimate test.
"A mile and a half separates the men from the boys," he said. "For trainers and jockeys, both, it's so easy to make mistakes." Judging pace is crucial, he said, but even more important is timing: "The most important thing is not to move too early."
Franklin still blames himself for Spectacular Bid's defeat in the Belmont because he made a premature move. Under the most intense pressure, a jockey has to sit colly and wait.