SARATAOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) – Slowly but surely, jockey John Velazquez is getting back in the groove.
By the time he’s inducted into thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame on Aug. 10, the two-time Eclipse Award winner hopes to be riding full time again after breaking a collarbone, lacerating a kidney and injuring two vertebrae in a frightening spill at Churchill Downs on June 16.
Less than a month later, though, he was back exercising horses in the mornings. He returned to competitive riding July 25 at Saratoga Race Course, finishing fourth in each of the two races in which he was entered.
“I’m getting there,” Velazquez said recently outside the jocks room at Saratoga. “The plan has been to ride a few races each day since coming back until I get strong enough to ride a full card.”
Velazquez was aboard Mr. Producer at Churchill Downs last month when the colt’s left front leg snapped while racing in second place at the top of the stretch, dumping the jockey and setting off a three-horse spill.
Taken by ambulance to the hospital, the 40-year-old Velazquez had broken his right collarbone, lacerated his left kidney and broke wings on two vertebrae. It was not the worst injury of his career, he said, but it shook him up nonetheless.
“You are more aware of it when it happens again,” Velazquez said, recalling two other spills over the years in which he broke a collarbone each time. “The kidney issue was the big problem. There was blood in my urine for a few days, and that was scary.”
A day after his return, he came home a winner with Artest in the Quick Call Stakes, and then won a maiden race with Park City a day later. He went 0-for-3 on Saturday, finishing fifth in the Grade 1 Diana aboard Hungry Island and last of eight in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy with Prospective. He was 0-for-2 on Sunday.
“It’s all about fitness and stamina,” Velazquez said. “I feel great. I feel 100 percent, but I am not ready to ride every race every day. And I won’t until I know I am ready. It’s not fair to the owners and to the people. Right now, it’s two or three races at a time.”
Velazquez is just pleased to be back at all. At first, he was told he might not be able to ride until halfway through the meet at Saratoga, where he won the jockey’s title last year with 54 wins and his 657 total wins at the Spa are second to Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey’s 693.
“Everything has gone right with my rehab,” said Velazquez, who shows up in the mornings these days to exercise two or three horses as part of his rehab program. “If there was a hiccup, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
There have been few missteps for one of the best riders in the game. The native of Puerto Rico was discovered by former major league baseball player Dick Allen, who told Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero Jr. about him. He’s won more than 4,800 races and earned nearly $268 million in purse money.
Velazquez, who won his first Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom and his second Belmont Stakes with Union Rags last month, still hasn’t watched a replay of the race that sidelined him.
“The past is the past. You’ve got to move on,” said Velazquez, married and the father of two children. “And that’s what I’m doing. It’s just good to be back.”