John Velazquez’s victory aboard Orb in last year’s Florida Derby presented him with an enviable but delicate decision.
One week later, the Hall of Fame jockey followed his triumph for trainer Shug McGaughey in Gulfstream Park’s $1 million Kentucky Derby prep by coaxing unbeaten Verrazano to a Wood Memorial triumph at Aqueduct for Todd Pletcher.
Orb or Verrazano.
Loosely committed to Pletcher because of a long and lucrative association, Velazquez joked in the midst of Florida Derby euphoria that jockeys would be “coming out of the woods” for the mount on Orb if it became available.
Later, jokingly lamenting that he could not ride both, Velazquez opted for Verrazano in the Run for the Roses. Jose Rosario, who had ridden Orb in prior starts, returned to the saddle for McGaughey.
Verrazano finished 14th on a muddy track that did not suit him. Orb toted Rosario to Kentucky Derby glory.
“That happens,” Velazquez acknowledged. “It wasn’t meant to be for me.” Not that day, anyway. He won the 2011 Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom.
Saturday, in the 63rd running of Gulfstream’s crown jewel, Velazquez will be lifted into the saddle on Fountain of Youth winner Wildcat Red for the first time. Rosario will mount Fountain of Youth runner-up General a Rod.
And Luis Saez, who steered Wildcat Red to that Fountain victory, will return to his customary place astride 9-5 favorite Cairo Prince for the 6:45 p.m. post.
Notice a thread? Leading riders are coveted. But with options come pitfalls. The best spend the first 3 ½ months of the thoroughbred racing year scouting for that super horse that can carry them into history on the first Saturday in May.
The most telling example: Javier Castellano, the 2013 Eclipse Award-winning jockey who again is shattering Gulfstream Park records, has ridden four of the eight Florida Derby starters at some point, including Wildcat Red and General a Rod.
But he’ll challenge the three most accomplished Kentucky Derby aspirants Saturday with Constitution, a Pletcher-schooled colt that has won both previous starts but enters stakes company for the first time.
Little wonder that Castellano, asked Wednesday if he has committed to a Kentucky Derby horse, replied, “Too early.”
The Florida Derby, the showcase on a 14-race program that includes eight stakes, should help clarify the picture for jockeys and bettors alike. But horse racing trades on uncertainty and surprises. And only one winner can emerge from among the likely 20 starters May 3.
Four Florida Derby winners in the past 13 years have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby: Orb, Big Brown in 2008, Barbaro in 2006 and Monarchos in 2001. A fifth could come out of Saturday’s talented crop.
Cairo Prince, No. 1 in most Kentucky Derby polls, has won three of four lifetime starts for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. He is separated from perfection by the nose of the McGaughey star Honor Code (now sidelined by injury) in the Remsen at Aqueduct last Nov. 30.
Indeed, Cairo Prince, Wildcat Red and General a Rod have never finished worse than second in 14 combined starts. If Constitution is added, the quartet has produced 11 victories and five runner-up finishes in 16 races. It’s a stellar lineup.
Velazquez, a 42-year-old Puerto Rico native and two-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation's leading jockey, has won more than 5,100 races in his storybook career. He has 11 Breeders’ Cup victories and Belmont scores aboard Rags to Riches in 2007 and Union Rags in 2012. But a Kentucky Derby win trumps all.
“It’s difficult,” he reflected this week. “You get through all these prep races trying to find the ideal horse for the Derby.” It’s a quixotic quest. And then fate shuffles the deck.
Given the fickle fortunes in thoroughbred racing, especially with 3-year-olds, nothing is certain until a jockey’s in the saddle in the post parade and the band is playing My Old Kentucky Home.
In 2011, Velazquez was scheduled to ride Uncle Mo, Pletcher’s 2-year-old champion. But the day before the Kentucky Derby, Pletcher withdrew Uncle Mo because of a gastrointestinal illness.
That became the third consecutive year Velazquez lost a ride on a colt that would have been among the storied race’s favorites.
An injury to the left front leg took Eskendereya off the 2010 Kentucky Derby trail after Velazquez had won Gulfstream’s Fountain of Youth and Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial with him. Quality Road, whom Velazquez rode to the 2009 Florida Derby championship, didn’t make it to the gate at Churchill Downs because of an injury to his right front foot.
Balancing the books for Velazquez, Uncle Mo’s problem made him available to take the mount on Animal Kingdom, whose previous rider, Robby Albarado, had been injured in a mishap the Wednesday before the Derby.
Footnote: Orb needed a Florida Derby rider because regular jockey Rosario was halfway around the globe winning the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup.
He was aboard Animal Kingdom, the same horse on which Velazquez won the Kentucky Derby.