Legendary jockey-trainer pair teams up for run at glory
BALTIMORE — Todd Pletcher, a Dallas native, seemingly was born to work in racing. His father, Jake, trained thoroughbreds, and Todd began working at the barn at the tender age of 7. He went on to earn a degree in animal sciences from the University of Arizona and served as an understudy to racing Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas before opening his own training operation in 1996.
John Velazquez, born in Carolina, Puerto Rico, developed an interest in racing and in becoming a jockey despite the vehement objections of his mother, Margarita, who was keenly aware of the potential for catastrophic injuries. Velazquez nonetheless came to New York to live with Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. in 1990. He was 18 years old and knew little about horses and even less about the English language.
Cordero observed as much potential in Pletcher as he did in Velazquez. After becoming Velazquez’s agent, he made sure these two men from disparate paths not only converged but ultimately formed one of the most potent combinations in the history of horse racing, if not all of sports.
Pletcher, 49, owns a record seven Eclipse Awards as the leading trainer in North America. No trainer has banked more than his $338 million in earnings.
Velazquez, 45, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012. No jockey has banked more than his $362 million in earnings. As of mid-May, according to Equibase, he derived $134,586,577 of that income from horses trained by Pletcher.
In a world of fleeting loyalties, in a sport in which a trainer and rider often are viewed through the lens of the last result, Pletcher and Velazquez have withstood the test of time.
“I have a tremendous amount of confidence in John, his ability and his decision-making,” Pletcher said.
Velazquez added: “It’s a great partnership. He trusts me in what I do. I trust him in what he does.”
For all they have accomplished, they still are working to fill gaping holes in their combined résumé. They resolved the biggest of those May 6, when after each had won the Kentucky Derby separately, they finally combined to take the Run for the Roses with Always Dreaming. They had fallen short on 11 previous occasions together.
Pletcher, who rarely shows emotion, had tears well up beneath his sunglasses. Velazquez, seemingly uncorking years of pressure since he and Pletcher had been a combined 2-for-63 in the Derby, sprayed champagne in the winner’s circle.
“Winning it together,” Pletcher said, “was something that we had always hoped for and dreamed of.”
Now, they look to fill another big blank when Pletcher gives Velazquez a leg up on Always Dreaming on behalf of Brooklyn Boyz Stables in the 142nd Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
Neither has won the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. Pletcher is winless with eight Preakness starters, two ridden by Velazquez. They typically prefer to focus on the Belmont Stakes because Belmont Park is their home base.
This time, the Preakness is as big as they come. Always Dreaming can take a major step toward joining American Pharoah (2015) as the second Triple Crown champion in three years after American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought between Triple Crown champions.
When Vinnie Viola purchased a stake in Always Dreaming from Anthony Bonomo, his boyhood pal since their days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he urged the colt be shifted to Pletcher’s barn after two solid but winless starts for trainer Dominic Schettino last summer.
According to Viola, he was drawn to Pletcher partly because he knew Velazquez would be along for the ride.
“When you have that trust between workmates, teammates, you can say in one word what it could take someone else 1,000 words,” Viola said.
He and Bonomo know exactly how that feels. They can be speechless and still know what the other is thinking and feeling.
Most in the racing industry marvel at the staying power of the PletcherVelazquez combination since postrace flare-ups between trainers and jockeys are common.
“There are a lot of peaks and valleys, and a lot of times the rider is the one who is blamed, and sometimes it’s not warranted,” veteran agent Ron Anderson said. “He’s never had to blame John because everything has gone so well.”
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said: “They’ve grown up together. I would say they’re more like brothers than business associates. ... They just know each other’s habits.”
Pletcher and Velazquez live near Belmont Park in Elmont in houses less than one mile apart. Their families are friends. As much as they appreciate how far they have come together, they are always dreaming about where they still want to go.
TWO FOR THE ROAD: Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez teamed up to win the Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming and now have their sights set on the Preakness.