Hallandale Beach, FL – When John Velazquez rode the three-year-old Monopolize onto the track for the fourth race at Gulfstream Park, he was greeted by resounding cheers.
The shouts of well wishes rang out in honor of the Hall of Fame jockey’s first race in almost three months while recovering from injuries he sustained in a spill back in November. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) at Santa Anita Park, Velazquez’s mount Secret Compass tragically broke down. The filly was euthanized, while Velazquez underwent emergency surgery to remove his spleen and was hospitalized for several days.
A long recovery process followed, and doctors didn’t clear the 42-year-old to ride again until January 10th. The following day he began exercise riding, and he used the time to regain his strength and rhythm in the saddle.
But it’s hard to simulate anything like an actual race. Following a fifth place finish with Monopolize, Velazquez had but one adjective to describe how it felt to be racing again.
“Tiring,” he said, laughing. “Other than that, it felt good, felt really good. I’m just looking for a horse now fast enough to carry me around.”
“It’s great to be here,” he added.
Velazquez also had mounts in both of the day’s stakes. He rode James F. Miller’s Aurelia’s Belle to a second-place finish in the $200,000 Forward Gal Stakes (G2), finishing behind only the heavily favored Onlyforyou. He finished the day with a 10th-place finish in the $400,000 Miller Lite Holy Bull (G2) aboard Coup de Grace. Velazquez has been riding for over 20 years and is racing’s all-time leader in earnings. But despite having a long list of accolades, the Puerto Rican native remains as passionate as ever about his craft.
“It’s the good horses,” Velazquez replied when asked what keeps him coming back. “The hunger for good horses. Something that’s going to carry you there and get you excited about it.”
Three-year-olds Shine on Holy Bull Day
The Holy Bull (G2) was the highlight of Saturday’s card, but the three year olds impressed throughout the entirety of the afternoon.
Following a year in which Orb gave Shug McGaughey the first ever Kentucky Derby victory of his 30-plus year career, Top Billing could have the Hall of Fame trainer smelling roses again. The chestnut colt put in a dazzling performance in the fourth race, an allowance optional claiming event for three-year-olds. By Curlin out of the A.P. Indy mare Parade Queen, Top Billing broke slowly and was far back until making a bold move around the far turn. He then easily circled the field and won by 2 ¾ lengths, all while under a hand ride from Joel Rosario. The colt covered the 1 1/16 mile distance in 1:42.66.
Surfing USA was second, 2 ½ lengths ahead of We’re All Set.
“That was pretty impressive,“ McGaughey said. “I was watching on the TV and all I could see was his number. The 2 was back there where I didn’t want him to be. He’s learning. I thought this was a powerful race
In the sixth, a maiden event for three-year-olds, Big Guy Ian followed up a fifth-place finish in his career debut with a 1 ¼ length win, covering the mile distance in 1:38.44. The chestnut colt by Birdstone out of Literary Light ran three-wide with the leaders throughout before emerging at the top of the stretch and putting away Holy Wildcat and the favored I’mbetterthangood.
Big Guy Ian was ridden by Joseph Rocco, Jr., for trainer Michael Dilger and Antsu Stables, Inc. Dilger, who just went off on his own and started his own racing stable this past year, has won with three of his eight starters so far this meet. He is a former assistant of Todd Pletcher.
Who’s Hot: Jockey Javier Castellano, currently leading the Gulfstream Park jockey standings in both wins and earnings, added to his lead by winning another three on Saturday’s card, including the third, seventh, and eighth races. Castellano has won the riding title at Gulfstream the past two years.
Rainbow 6 Carryover: $196,645.29