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John Velazquez

Before leaving for Monmouth Park, where he was scheduled to ride morning-line favorite Data Link for trainer Shug McGaughey in the Grade 3, $200,000 Monmouth Stakes, jockey John Velazquez was on the Belmont Park backstretch reflecting on his thrilling victory aboard Union Rags in the 144th Belmont Stakes.


Velazquez, who will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. later this summer, guided Union Rags through a narrow opening on the rail and caught pacesetter Paynter to win the 1 ½-mile Belmont by a neck.


“I knew it was going to be a good race,” Velazquez said. “We didn’t have I’ll Have Another in the race, but I knew it was going to be a very good race, a very interesting race, and it was.


“I rode him with a lot of confidence. I thought he had the talent to do it. I was just hoping that I got a little room to run and that he would respond when I wanted him to, and he did. I was very lucky. Very lucky.”


Velazquez rode Union Rags for trainer Michael Matz, replacing Julien Leparoux, who had been aboard in his previous three races, including tough-trip losses in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby.


It was the third career victory in a Triple Crown race for Velazquez, who captured the 2007 Belmont with filly Rags to Riches and the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, both on inherited mounts, the latter coming just the day before the race.


“All my [Classic] wins are horses that I picked up. It’s incredible,” Velazquez said. “After riding so many good horses all these years … some of the best horses I’ve been on didn’t make the Derby. I guess that’s part of the business, and I guess that’s the way it was meant for me. Some people get lucky and get a good horse.


“Look at [I’ll Have Another’s jockey] Mario [Gutierrez]. You get a good horse and he brings you to the Derby, and you win the Derby and the Preakness. I guess that’s the way it goes. For me to be here and win it here is incredible. It’s home for me. Winning the race makes it extra special.”


Velazquez felt that the Belmont victory helped validate Union Rags.


“People forgot about this horse,” Velazquez said. “This horse was one of the first choices for the Derby, and he had a bad race in the Derby and right away everybody forgot about him. Everybody got off the bandwagon. We know from Derbies before that many good horses go to the Derby and don’t run very well for whatever reason. They can break bad or get a bad trip, and they can’t run their best races. He was one of them. All I know is, I’ve been watching this horse for a long time, and he’s a very, very good horse.”


Matz had wanted Velazquez to ride Union Rags throughout the Triple Crown, but the jockey couldn’t give a three-race commitment due to his ties with Animal Kingdom. Velazquez hopes to be aboard the rest of the year.


“I’m willing to stay with him, no problem … until they fire me,” Velazquez joked. “Whatever they want to do.”




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