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William Nack
June 01, 1981
Through 17 years of race-riding and 4,000 wins, Jorge Velasquez has waited for the day he would be a star. Finally he has the right horse, Pleasant Colony, and two legs of the Triple Crown. Now it's on to the Belmont Stakes
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June 01, 1981

Scaling The Heights At Long Last

Through 17 years of race-riding and 4,000 wins, Jorge Velasquez has waited for the day he would be a star. Finally he has the right horse, Pleasant Colony, and two legs of the Triple Crown. Now it's on to the Belmont Stakes

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"Each time he'd say, 'This time I'm going to beat him!' " says his wife, Margarita. " 'This time...this time!' "

"Very frustrating," Velasquez says.

The next year was clouded by charges by Jockey Jose Amy that Velasquez, along with Cordero, Baeza and others, had fixed races. These accusations were similar to those previously made by convicted race fixer Tony Ciulla. Velasquez denies the allegations. But lately things have been looking up for Velasquez. In the last few weeks he has won not only his first Derby, but his first Preakness as well. And what is most striking was how confidently he handled Pleasant Colony at Pimlico. During a dogfight with Bold Ego midway through the stretch, Velasquez put away his whip and hand-rode his colt to the wire. "What Georgie did from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole was remarkable," says John Campo, Pleasant Colony's trainer. "He put his stick down. That takes a lot of guts. You're not going to see a race-ride like that for a longtime."

"Pleasant Colony didn't need the whip," Velasquez says. "There's no use knocking him out."

Late last winter, when Velasquez's horse, the early Derby favorite, Lord Avie, hurt himself in Florida, Velasquez didn't even have a mount for the classics. Today he's odds on favorite to win the Belmont on June 6 and ride back to the winner's circle on America's 12th Triple Crown champion. He has been a long time getting there.

Velasquez was born in Panama City on Dec. 28, 1946, the son of a butcher who was separated from Jorge's mother before the boy was a year old. Jorge's father put his son under the care of Jorge's Aunt Francisca. Francisca lived with her family in Chepo, a small farming town about 25 miles north of the city, in a house with dirt floors, bamboo walls and a thatched roof. Velasquez recalls waking up as a young boy and seeing his aunt pacing the kitchen: "Walking around and around, worried because she didn't have anything to serve for breakfast."

Jorge started working in the fields at age eight, picking beans and tomatoes for $1 a day, sometimes from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., under the enervating Panama sun. "I had to force myself to work so I could pick as much as a grown man and earn the whole dollar," he says. He worked for a bakery when he was 12, arising at 5 a.m., walking an hour to the neighboring town of Las Margaritas, where the bakery was located, and delivering loaves of bread there and in Chepo from a large bag perched on his right shoulder. "I got paid in bread," he says. "It was tough, but I remember that I never went to sleep without eating. I always had something in my stomach then."

At the urging of a friend, who thought Jorge could be a jockey, and with the reluctant blessing of his adoptive mother, to whom he had grown very close, Velasquez left Chepo when he was 13 years old and moved to Panama City to live with his father, work in the butcher shop and look for a job at the Hippodromo Presidente Remon, the local racetrack. Jorge was 5'3" and 100 pounds and kept telling Francisca, "I want to be like Braulio Baeza." It was not so wild a dream. Baeza, the leading Panamanian jockey at the time, had come from a background very similar to Velasquez's. Jorge had worked with his father for three months when he landed a job at the track with one of Panama's top trainers, Felix Rodriguez. "He reminded me of Don Quixote," Velasquez says. "Very thin." Rodriguez kept Jorge lean, too, paying him off in experience. "I was working for nothing, walking hots, mucking stalls, feeding, cleaning," Velasquez says. "I did everything. It's not easy to be a rider in Panama, but I wanted to learn. I loved it from the beginning."

He had to. His father gave him an allowance of 75¢ a day, each night leaving it on the kitchen table, but Jorge spent 60¢ just getting to and from the track. Pitching pennies ultimately saved him. "I got good, real good," he says. "I used to make two, three dollars a day pitching pennies." Meanwhile he studied for his jockey's license under Bolivar Moreno, a former jock who ran a school at the track, and picked up the rudiments of his craft by straddling a barrel with rope stirrups and reins. "It gives you the idea," Velasquez says. "You learn how to keep low, how to position yourself, how to hand-ride, how to hit a horse, how to come out of the gate. He told us how to save a horse—that it's not all jump from the go."

Velasquez hustled for chances to learn. Rodriguez gave him a broken-down racehorse named Susurro, a big bay with a bad leg, to ride and provide for. Velasquez panhandled for the horse, going from barn to barn to scrounge hay and oats. "He got leftovers," Velasquez says, "but I learned how to ride on that horse."

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