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Velasquez was soon putting his learning to good use. Trainer Vasco Achong, who had encouraged Velasquez to stick it out when Jorge was considering going home to Chepo—"I couldn't get a mount," Velasquez says—gave him his first ride at the Hippodromo, on a horse named Guiño. There Jorge was, racing slowly on the outside, his reins flapping loosely, his horse going nowhere. As Jockey Antonio Henriquez passed him, he glanced over at Velasquez and yelled: "Pelao [boy], recoge las reindas!"
Velasquez gathered up his reindas, shortening his hold on the lines. Feeling his jock pick up the bit, Guiño grabbed it and took off. "It gave him confidence," Velasquez says. Guiño finished fourth, but he taught Velasquez how to take hold of a horse, transmit confidence through the lines to the bit. Velasquez's career was launched. He was a phenom in Panama City, just as Baeza had been before him and Pincay would be soon. By the time Velasquez started riding, in 1963, Baeza had already gone to the States—he won the Derby that year, on Chateaugay—under contract to owner Fred W. Hooper. Velasquez won 347 races in his three years in Panama City and either broke or equaled every record Baeza had set. His circumstances, meanwhile, changed dramatically. He was making $500 a week—they race only on weekends and holidays in Panama—sharing an apartment, driving a new white Renault and sending home money every week to Francisca. He no longer pitched pennies for lunch.
When Hooper contacted Velasquez in August 1965, offering him $500 a month to sign a three-year contract to ride in the U.S., he accepted. Velasquez rode his first U.S. winner on Sept. 20 at Atlantic City, and in the ensuing 17 years he has ridden more than 4,000 others. For all but the first four months of his career in the U.S. his book has been handled by Vic Gilardi, a peripatetic former produce dealer from Staten Island whose 16-year association with the rider is among the most enduring, as well as lucrative, in the business. Velasquez's mounts have won more than $5 million a year in each of the last three years. (A rider usually gets about 10% of the purses he wins, and in turn he gives 20% to 25% of those earnings to his agent.) "Our goal is to make that each year," Gilardi says. "And then relax."
There is no single quality to which one can ascribe Velasquez's uncommon ability to get a horse home. He is, horsemen say, an example of what they mean by a "complete rider," one who lacks no important dimension in performing on a racehorse. Calumet Farm Trainer John Veitch, for whom Velasquez rode champions Our Mims and Davona Dale as well as Alydar, says, "He has all the attributes of a brilliant rider. He has good hands, his use of a stick is superb, he switches his stick well and he's a superb tactician—he knows how a race is being run, what's going on in a race. He's strong and has tremendous endurance, whether you're going three quarters of a mile or a mile and a half. There's a oneness between a good rider and a horse: Cordero, Shoemaker, Velasquez—they're an asset to a horse, they move with a horse, in rhythm, as a unit. All brilliant riders have a combination of things that separate them from the merely good riders. It's hard to describe. It's like watching a world-class gymnast or a Baryshnikov."
Clues to two of Velasquez's more remarkable talents may be found in reading the names of Eclipse champions for whom he has been the regular rider. Since 1969 he has ridden the following top males: Fort Marcy, Hawaii, Snow Knight and Bowl Game. And he has ridden the following Eclipse fillies: Forward Gal, Desert Vixen, Chris Evert, Dearly Precious, Proud Delta, Our Mims, Tempest Queen, Late Bloomer and Davona Dale. Not coincidentally, the four males were all champions on the grass, a surface over which Velasquez is an acknowledged master. It's also the surface he prefers, and for a reason that illustrates one of his salient qualities. "He waits, he sees what happens," Penna says. "He looks—this horse moves over and he moves over." Which is why Velasquez prefers grass. On dirt, with clods flying, it's more difficult to see than on the grass. "The dirt isn't coming back as hard on the turf," Velasquez says. "You've got to be aware of everything. I'm always back there. I have to know who I'm going to follow. Split-second decision."
That he has ridden all those filly champions points to something else about Velasquez. Trainer Lou Rondinello, for whom Velasquez rode Tempest Queen, says Velasquez's style suits fillies well. He's a sit-still, patient rider with marvelous hands—"unbelievable hands," Penna says—and most fillies run better under that kind of handling. "You've got to get them to relax," Rondinello says. "They're more hyper than colts, and he gets them to relax."
"Fillies are more delicate and moody and you have to treat them right, with kindness," Velasquez says. "You can't hand-ride them too strong, you can't hit them too hard. You have to talk to them, baby them, have patience with them. Sit still."
It's his paciencia, Velasquez says, that has helped make him one of the most noted photo finishers in New York. And his nerves. "The secret of the photo finish is to have the nerves to wait to the last sixteenth of a mile," says Velasquez, "to save something and not get so anxious at the quarter pole because you think you're going to get beat when the other horse comes to you. When the other horse comes to you and doesn't pull away, that's when you have to take advantage and wait just a little bit more, a little bit until the last sixteenth. And boom! You have to have the nerves and the good timing to come back and boom! But first the nerves. Patience, patience. Wait, wait."
Velasquez has waited a long time, patiently, for the acclaim he has received in the last few weeks, for the Derby and Preakness victories and for the opportunity that will be his next week at Belmont Park. And he's savoring every moment of it. One evening last week Jorge was sitting with Margarita and their three children—Jorge, 10, Michele, 9, and Monique, 5—in their home in Woodmere, N.Y. The children had been talking about the Belmont, and Margarita was growing restless. "Georgie," she finally said, "I can't wait for the race to come so the whole thing will be over."
"Why are you so anxious for the Belmont to be over?" Velasquez asked. "When it's over, that's it. When it comes it will be over, and we'll have to wait another year. Don't be so anxious."