LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- John Velazquez has been an elite rider for a long time, winning dozens of major stakes, including the Belmont and nine Breeders' Cup events. He owns two Eclipse Awards and is a finalist for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2011. Yet there was one hole on his resume he wondered if he'd ever fill.
"Wherever you go in the world, when they find out you're a jockey, the first question is: 'Did you ever ride in the Kentucky Derby?' '' Velazquez said Saturday. "The second one is: Did you win it?''
More horse racing
Finally, the 39-year-old Puerto Rican can say yes.
Circumstances this week finally conspired to give the easygoing Johnny V. a horse who would wear the garland of roses. Velazquez guided 20-1 shot Animal Kingdom to a 2¾-length triumph over Nehro Saturday at Churchill Downs. "Now I can check this one off,'' he said.
For three straight years, injury or illness denied Velazquez a Derby mount on a standout -- Quality Road, Eskendereya and Uncle Mo. Last year was especially painful because trainer Todd Pletcher, Velazquez's main client, finally won the Derby, but with Calvin Borel on Super Saver.
On Thursday, the day before Uncle Mo was scratched, Velazquez was asked if he obsessed about never getting a break in the Derby. "No, I don't think like that,'' he said with a rueful smile. "Otherwise, I'd have to go hang myself.'''
The jockey he replaced, Robby Albarado, must be wondering why fate turned against him. Albarado, who is 0-for-12 in the Derby, suffered a broken nose and facial lacerations Wednesday at Churchill when a first-time starter threw him headfirst in the post parade and stepped on his face. Barry Irwin, head of Team Valor International, decided Friday he would rather ride Velazquez and offered him the mount.
"When Uncle Mo scratched and Johnny came open, we decided to go to him,'' Irwin said. "It was a tough call. It's nothing against Robby, I like him and we won a lot of races with him. We'll try to do something to make it up to him.''
That will take some doing.
After sitting out Thursday and Friday, the 39-year-old Cajun returned Saturday and won the Grade I Humana Distaff. Those good vibes vanished as he watched the mount he lost win the ultimate prize. When approached afterward, Albarado said, "I'm not talking.''
After pulling up Animal Kingdom, Velazquez said, "I feel bad for Robby, winning the Derby when he was here.''