As John Velazquez pondered his riding career through the years, he kept two things in mind. He might retire soon after he turned 45; he would surely not ride past 47.
As Velazquez nears his 47th birthday on Nov. 24, there is no hint that a Hall of Fame career that made him the runaway leader with more than $395 million in earnings is close to ending. He is instead focused on reaching 6,000 wins – he was four victories shy going into the Nov. 16 card at Aqueduct – and on securing mounts in the new year that can take him to the Triple Crown races in the spring, the Breeders' Cup World Championships in autumn and every other major race in between.
“The day that I don't feel I'm getting opportunities that I think I should be getting, and I'm not having horses that I can get excited about, then I'll just walk out,” Velazquez said during an interview at Aqueduct.
He trusts that Angel Cordero Jr., his long-time agent and mentor, would never stand by and allow him to slip into mediocrity if his reflexes should dull or his instincts no longer be sharp.
“I'm like his father. I would be the first to tell him,” Cordero said. “But he's completely on his game.”
According to Equibase, Velazquez entered competition on Nov. 16 ranked sixth nationally with $17,126,059 in earnings. He was winning at a robust 20 percent clip, with 147 victories in 739 starts.
Retirement? It would be hard for anyone enjoying that level of success to walk away.
“I'll go month by month or year by year. I don't know,” Velazquez said. “It's about being healthy and having opportunities you think are going to bring you somewhere.”
He owns two Kentucky Derby triumphs, with Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He is a two-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, prevailing with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007 and with Union Rags (2012). His 16 Breeders' Cup victories trail only Mike Smith (26).
Velazquez yearns for more. In a sense, he is every bit as hungry now as when he arrived in New York from his native Puerto Rico in 1990 and began staying with Cordero and his family. He learned about life, riding and the English language, in that order.
Now, he realizes how powerful a hold the thrill of competition has on him. “Believe me, it sucks you in. In a sense, it's like a drug,” he said. “I have a fire for riding nice horses and winning races. That's what I think about.”
The risks that accompany his career have been driven home by numerous injuries, one of them life-threatening. When his mount in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies fractured a leg and went down at Santa Anita in 2013, he suffered internal bleeding that was so severe his spleen needed to be removed.
As he gradually recovered, his wife, Leona, asked if he intended to return to the track.
“I never thought about not going back,” he told her. They have two children, a daughter, Lerina, who is studying at New York University, and a teenage son, Michael.
Leona and John Velazquez at 2017 Breeders' Cup
Velazquez is being more selective about his mounts. He is finally winning what he said has been an annual tug of war with Cordero about the number of horses he rides on a given card.
“I don't think I need to prove anything now,” he said. “Where am I going to go with a $20,000 maiden? Where am I going to go with a $14,000 maiden? I do ride them for my (regular) customers, but I don't need to be riding them every day.”
Even now, Cordero worries about protecting business relationships they both worked hard to forge.
“He would like to ride one or two,” Cordero noted. “You can do that in California, but not here. I try to ride him on three or four.”
Cordero apparently was referring to Mike Smith, 53, who is based in California. Smith has helped to extend his career by being extremely selective about his mounts. He ranks second all-time with more than $317 million in earnings.
Because Velazquez is riding less frequently, he said he increased his conditioning to offset that. He has no set regime, but said he makes sure he works out in some form at least five days a week.
He believes he lost nothing physically while gaining considerably from the mental aspect.
“I think I'm better now,” he said, “because I can anticipate a lot of things I couldn't anticipate when I was younger.”
He has long viewed his extensive preparation as the overriding factor in his success.
“I don't like surprises out there. I like to think I'm prepared enough that I'm ready for anything that is going to be thrown at me,” he said. “I prepare myself the same way, whether it's a big race or a claiming race. Everything counts.”
That dedication goes a long way toward explaining why Velazquez is counting down to 6,000. And why he is not at all counting the days toward retirement.