New York Has Its Dream Kentucky Derby Duo In Todd Pletcher, John Velazquez

Written By Grant Lucas on April 26, 2024
Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez shake hands for a story on the two New York residents looking to once again win the Kentucky Derby

Last summer, New York lost a Kentucky Derby legend.

Just over two decades after becoming the first Empire State-bred horse to win the Run for the Roses and the first gelding to claim the crown in 74 years, Funny Cide died last July at the age of 23.

No New York horse won before. No New York horse has won since. Only one other horse won at an older age.

But just because we won’t see another Empire State thoroughbred contend for the epic title, that doesn’t mean Kentucky Derby betting goes without any New York ties.

In fact, one of the likely favorites heading into the 150th Derby has TWO: trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez.

Todd Pletcher: From simple groom to championship trainer

Over the past 14 years, only Bob Baffert trained more Derby-winning horses than Pletcher. Pletcher trained Super Saver to a Kentucky Derby win in 2010, followed seven years later by Always Dreaming.

While Pletcher was born in Dallas, Texas, he now calls Garden City home on Long Island. And he has Empire State roots.

After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in animal science, Pletcher immediately relocated to New York to work for D. Wayne Lukas as a foreman. Within two years, Pletcher was promoted to assistant trainer, helping develop horses.

All of that groundwork came to a head in 2004, when his 3-year-old filly Ashado won the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, the same horse that also won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff later that year. But the Breeders Cup had another Pletcher winner that year as well: Speightstown claiming the sprint division.

In New York, Pletcher horses won five straight titles at the Saratoga meet. And his work did not go unnoticed: The New York Turf Writers Association selected Pletcher as the Woody Stephens Award winner as outstanding trainer four times. On top of that, Pletcher earned the Eclipse Award as top trainer eight times, most recently in 2022, a year after his induction into the United States Racing Hall of Fame.

There is some darkness in Pletcher’s rise

It should be noted that, like Baffert, Pletcher was embroiled in scandal over the few years. The New York State Gaming Commission discovered that one of Pletcher’s horses, Capensis, tested positive in July 2022 at Saratoga for an excess level of an anti-inflammatory drug. Ultimately, the NYSGC handed Pletcher a two-week suspension and a $2,000 fine.

However, a Supreme Court justice recently issued a temporary restraining order on that penalty, setting a court date for May 31, where Pletcher’s attorney will seek a preliminary injunction.

Hall of fame jockey Velazquez teams up with Pletcher again

In 2012, jockey John Velazquez took to the podium of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. Pletcher had just introduced the jockey, the latest inductee.

Just five years earlier, Velazquez notched his first Triple Crown win, in the Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches, a Pletcher product.

The duo, fittingly described by Daily Racing Forum as the “John Lennon-Paul McCartney of Thoroughbred racing,” had worked together for going on two decades. By 2019, they combined to rack up 1,795 races.

At that moment, in Saratoga Springs, the typically cool and calm Velazquez broke character, providing a peek at his emotional side.

“Todd’s been my No. 1 supporter for many, many years,” Velazquez said at the ceremony. “The marriage is still going, right, Todd? Almost as long as my marriage with Leona.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Velazquez trained there as a jockey before moving to New York before turning 20. He lived with his mentor of sorts – Angel Cordero, Jr. – at the time, saying that he essentially learned English by watching The Little Mermaid with Cordero’s young daughter.

Despite having thoughts of moving back to Puerto Rico after a rough go of things early on, Velazquez stuck with it. He eventually racked up the third-most Kentucky Derby wins (three; the fourth, aboard Medina Spirit, was scratched after the colt was disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance) and became the third-oldest rider to win the Derby at the age of 48 in 2020.

Where the two New Yorkers meet at the Kentucky Derby

Once again, the tandem of Pletcher and Velazquez will take center stage at Churchill Downs, with Fierceness as the Kentucky-bred bay colt looking to capture the blanket of roses.

And Fierceness appears to be the horse to beat at the 150th Kentucky Derby.

The thoroughbred has claimed three victories in five career starts by a combined 31 lengths. He won the the Florida Derby earlier this year by a record-setting 13 ½ lengths. And his winning time of 1 minute, 48.22 seconds was the third-fastest in the race’s history. The two that beat it, two other Pletcher horses: Quality Road in 2009 (an early favorite who was scratched before that year’s Kentucky Derby) and the aforementioned Always Dreaming – with Velazquez jockeying.

Can history repeat itself as the New York dynamic duo of Pletcher and Velazquez make their way to Churchill Downs?

Photo by Darron Cummings / AP Photo
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Grant Lucas

Grant Lucas is the managing editor for PlayNY. A longtime, award-winning sports writer, Grant has covered gambling and legal sports betting since 2018, when he got his start reporting on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania industries. He now oversees PlayNY as New York expands legalized gambling to sports betting and online casino gaming.

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