Leg­endary jockey-trainer pair teams up for run at glory

New York Post - - SPORTS - By TOM PEDULLA

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.

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