By Art Petrosemolo
OCEANPORT – “I remember it like it was yesterday,” says a smiling Jorge Velasquez, hall of fame jockey and a participant in one of horseracing’s most legendary rivalry.
It was 35 years this spring season at the Belmont Stakes that the classic Triple Crown duel between Steve Cauthen, riding Affirmed, and Velasquez aboard Alydar came to a dramatic finish. Affirmed, who had beaten Alydar by a length in the Kentucky Derby and a neck in the Preakness, nosed out Alydar in the Belmont to win the coveted honor. No thoroughbred has won the Triple Crown since and no other horse ever finished second in all three Triple Crown races.
Although it is 16 years from his last mount, the trim Velasquez, now a jockey’s agent, looks like he could get a leg up on a 3-year-old and finish in the money this weekend in the Belmont Stakes.
Velasquez handles the “book” of stakes winner Chris DeCarlo, Oceanport, and young Ramon Moya, Philadelphia, securing calls for quality mounts for them at tracks up and down the East Coast.
Georgie, as he likes to be called by everyone, has remained friendly with Cauthen and they talk several times a year. Cauthen owns a horse farm in Kentucky. The pair will be forever linked in what many thoroughbred fans call a magical year in racing history. “It is still disappointing not to have won one of the races,” Velasquez says.
“I am pleased to have been part of racing history. A Triple Crown TV broadcast isn’t complete,” he smiles, “without showing video of those races.”
After his last ride while living with wife Margarita and family in Florida, Velasquez thought he might pursue a career as a steward. Before he finished school, Velasquez was asked by jockey Jose Rivera to represent him. “You know everything and everyone,” Rivera said. “Who better to be an agent?” Velasquez said yes and has been at it every since.
A jockey’s livelihood is determined by winning purses. The jockey gets a percentage of the purse if the horse he rides finishes first through third. Velasquez gets a percentage of that percentage.
Both DeCarlo in his early 40s and Moya in his late 20s feel fortunate to be able to work with Velasquez. DeCarlo started riding as a teen while Moya did not get into the business until his 20s. DeCarlo has known Velasquez, a family friend, his entire life and was mentored by him and hall of fame jockey Angel Cordero. Moya’s dad is a trainer and has known Velasquez throughout his career. The riders say having Velasquez as a second set of eyes and mentor is invaluable.
DeCarlo has won on the big stage, including the 1985 Grade 1 Haskell at Monmouth, at age 17. He is still the youngest rider to win the prestigious race.
DeCarlo also has had two mounts in the Kentucky Derby and gets calls from well-known trainer Todd Pletcher for his New Jersey horses. “Having Velasquez to talk to before and after any race is a plus,” DeCarlo says.
For Moya, who, like DeCarlo, won the first race he ever rode lost his apprentice “bug” a few years ago and is gaining experience with each ride.
“He wants to get better,” Velasquez says, “and wants me to evaluate his rides so he can improve and get the “call” from trainers for higher priced horses.”
Moya recently rode long shot Big Sur to victory in the Majestic Light Stakes at Monmouth Park recently for his trainer dad.
Velasquez knows what it means to earn his stripes. His career began in his native Panama in 1963 as a teenager before he moved to the United States in 1965. He hit U.S. tracks by storm, winning more races than any U.S. rider, in 1967 and was the U.S. top-money winner in 1969. While Velasquez won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1981 aboard Pleasant Colony, usually any conversation with Velasquez finds it way to his thoughts about the magical 1978 racing season.
“Alydar was bred for distance,” he remembers, “and I thought the Belmont was going to be our race. Everyone expected a duel and that’s what they got. The pace was much slower than we wanted. I came up alongside Affirmed in the middle of the backstretch and we ran stride for stride around the final turn and down the stretch.”
Affirmed held off Velasquez at the wire. “It’s too bad Alydar was a 3-year-old in 1978,” Velasquez smiles, “he probably would have won it all the next year.”
Velasquez is at the track every day. He studies the ***ITALConditions Book***END for Eastern tracks that lists the scheduled races for each day of their meet, including purses and entry qualifications. Velasquez then lets DeCarlo and Moya know their schedule and they go over the book on the horse, including past performances, idiosyncrasies, how the horse runs on the grass or dirt and who has ridden the horse before successfully.
“Good agents do their homework,” Velasquez says, “It’s important that my riders know everything they need to know before they leg up on their mount in the paddock.”
Both DeCarlo and Moya say, with Velasquez shaking his head in agreement, that fans have no idea what it takes to ride a horse at nearly 40 miles an hour for up to a mile with a half-dozen or more horses and jockeys in close proximity. It is not for the feint of heart.
Velasquez will be close to a video feed from Belmont Saturday and he’ll look at it with mixed feelings. A Triple Crown winner in 2013 is not in the cards but his memories of the 1978 duel with Affirmed will be close.
The story, racing fans will remember, has a mixed ending. Alydar got revenge in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August that year in what turned out to be the pair’s final meeting.
The Travers was not what all had hoped for. Affirmed – with Laffit Pincay on board for an injured Cauthen – fouled Alydar in the backstretch sending the horse into the rail. Velasquez was nearly unseated but got Alydar straightened out and running but could not overtake the Triple Crown winner. However, as soon as the horses crossed the finish line, the judges flashed the inquiry light and shortly after disqualified Affirmed moving Velasquez and Alydar to the top spot. “It wasn’t the way I would have planned it,” says Velasquez, “not the ending everyone – including me – wanted to see.”
Although both horses continued their careers, they never met again.
“You know it was just a wonderful, intense rivalry that went on for months,” Velasquez says. “I hope my guys, Chris and Ramon, get a chance to experience that kind of intensity sometime in their career.”
Writer-Photographer Art Petrosemolo, Shrewsbury, has a passion for thoroughbreds and writes frequently about trainers, jockeys and horses.