Rare are the moments in any sport when an athlete so clearly defines the essence of his art that in a sense he establishes standards for all those who practice it. In race-riding such moments almost invariably are the result of the tensions created in facing risks and the consequences involved in taking them. Do I go outside, where I lose ground but avoid trouble, or do I try to get through on the rail and hazard getting caught in a switch? Do I move now, or do I wait? Do I follow this horse, or that horse? How fast are we going, anyway? Should I take back, or lie close?
Over the past few years—in the major races where risks are magnified by the importance of the outcome—one can recall several instances when a jockey has imposed himself so decisively upon a race that the horse would not have won without him. Each performance, in its way, was a masterpiece.
There was Angel Cordero's ride aboard Cannonade in the 23-horse Kentucky Derby of 1974, with Cordero staying outside as the field stretched out, then seeing his opportunity and boldly seizing it, angling the colt to the perilous rail. Scooting along the fence in a rush, saving ground, Cordero sprinted to the lead on the last turn and rode on to win his first Derby.
There was Bill Shoemaker's ride on 6-year-old Forego in the 1976 Marlboro Cup, when the old horse looked hopelessly out of it turning for home. Forego was drifting out in the stretch, losing ground, but Shoemaker never tried to straighten him, perceiving that to do so might break the momentum of Forego's run. Under a flawlessly rhythmic, exquisitely timed ride, Shoe coaxed and pushed his mount and won by a bob of Forego's head.
There was Steve Cauthen's ride on Johnny D. in the 1977 Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. Johnny D. ran head and head with Crow through a slow first mile on soft turf, with favored Exceller and Majestic Light chugging along in the ruck, waiting to make their moves. Suddenly, with half a mile still to run, Cauthen said, "Go!" and Johnny D. exploded, opening six insurmountable lengths in one sustained burst of speed.
And there was, finally, this year's 21-horse Kentucky Derby and Jorge Velasquez sitting as still as a piece of statuary on Pleasant Colony's back, letting the colt relax on the outside, out of trouble, patiently waiting down the backside for the speed to fry itself and then making his run into the turn and around the last jammed bend for home. Masterfully, like a New York cabbie in a traffic jam, Velasquez watched the horses shifting before him, adroitly weaving the colt inside of some and outside of others until he came to a clearing at the turn for home. There was still a quarter of a mile to go, but Velasquez had the Kentucky Derby won by then. "It was a painting!" says Angel Penna, the great Argentine trainer.
Velasquez had been painting like that for years, though too few have noticed. He has won six New York riding titles since he started working the tracks there in 1968, and he is one of only four jockeys in history—Shoemaker, Cordero and Laffit Pincay Jr. are the others—to have won more than $50 million during his career. Velasquez has his loyal following, to be sure. "He is the greatest rider in the world," says fellow Panamanian Heliodoro Gustines, a former jockey who is now a trainer. But for years Velasquez has lived on the outskirts of fame, his mastery underrated or unacknowledged.
Surely some of this has to do with the timing of his arrival in New York and his reticent manner. When Velasquez came to Gotham, the turf was ruled by riders such as Eddie Belmonte—brilliant on the racecourse, high-living off it—and Braulio Baeza, the peerless tactician whose erect carriage and inscrutable visage gave him an aura all his own. Velasquez also shared the same jocks' room with Cordero, who sang on his way to the paddock, rode flashily and did dismounts like Nadia Comaneci.
Yet, even the years spent around the likes of Cordero and Baeza couldn't have prepared Velasquez for the Cauthen Era and the frustration of the spring of 1978. Velasquez had dreamed for years of winning the Kentucky Derby. In December of 1967, on his way to securing the national title for races won with 438, he said, "Of course I'd like to win 400 or more again next year, but if I had my choice, I'd rather win the Derby than anything. When you've won the Derby, everyone knows your name."
But year after year he came up empty. Not only did he not win the Derby, but he also didn't win either of the other two Triple Crown races, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. But Velasquez had good reason to believe that 1978 would be different, because he was coming to the spring classics aboard Alydar. It was Velasquez's longest season. Three times he thought he had Affirmed and Cauthen beat, and three times he couldn't get by them. He finished second in each race—a length and a half behind in the Derby, a neck back in the Preakness, a head behind in the Belmont. Velasquez had been involved in the most stirring series of duels in the history of the Triple Crown, but there was little solace in that.