An injury to Animal Kingdom's regular rider, Robby Albarado, cleared the way for Velazquez to pick up the mount on the 20-1 long shot. Once he took the reins Saturday, he rode his good luck all the way to the winner's circle.
"For once, I'm on the good end of it," Velazquez said. "All of a sudden I pick up this one and he wins the Derby, so it was meant to be."
The last three years, the New York-based jockey came to Churchill Downs with a colt considered a leading contender, only to have it withdrawn.
This time, he was supposed to ride early second choice Uncle Mo before the colt was scratched due to a lingering stomach problem. Then Albarado broke his nose when he was thrown off his horse and kicked in the face before a race three days ago.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Animal Kingdom, who had never raced on dirt before, reacted to his new rider the way a champion should, charging down the middle of the stretch to win by 2¾ lengths in front of a crowd of 164,858, the largest in Derby history.
He ran 1¼ miles in 2:02.04 - well off Secretariat's track record of 1:59.40 in 1973 - and paid $43.80, $19.60 and $13.
Nehro returned $8.80 and $6.40, while Mucho Macho Man was another neck back in third and paid $7 to show.
"It's words that you can't describe," Velazquez said. "But I do really feel really bad for Robby. I hope he's winning the Derby with me here. I know he got hurt, so this is for both of us, buddy. I know you're not on it, but I know you're with me."
Well, not exactly.
"I'm not happy," said Albarado, despite winning a $345,600 stakes race on the Derby undercard. "Barry Irwin decided he didn't think I was fit to ride; he didn't know my status or situation. This just wasn't my time today."
Animal Kingdom is owned by Team Valor International, a partnership syndicate headed by Irwin, a former writer for the Daily Racing Form, the industry's bible.
Irwin decided to switch riders when Albarado took Friday off to recuperate.
"It was a tough call because I really like Robby. He's won a lot of races for us, but we got 20 partners in this horse," Irwin said. "We got a large investment and I had to do what I thought was best for the partnership."
Like Velazquez, Irwin said he would make it up to Albarado.
Like his jockey, trainer Graham Motion got lucky, too.
His top Derby horse, Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner, never even made it to Louisville. He had a leg injury and never left Motion's barn in Maryland.
"Somebody said, 'Are you surprised to win with a second-tier horse?'" Motion said. "I said, 'I'm not sure we would categorize him as a second-tier horse.' He's been an extraordinary horse to train. I was so impressed with how he handled everything."
Dialed In went off as the 5-1 favorite for two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, but finished eighth.
Mucho Macho Man's finish for Kathy Ritvo tied her for second-best result by a female trainer in the 137-year-old race. Shelley Riley saddled Casual Lies to a second-place finish in 1992.
Rosie Napravnik was ninth aboard 8-1 second choice Pants On Fire in her bid to become the first female jockey to win. Still, her finish was the highest of the six women who've ridden in the Derby.
"I couldn't have wished for a better trip," she said.
Neither could Velazquez. The day was clearly his after going 0-for-12 in previous Derby tries.
"It was a loss for Robby, obviously, having the accident he had, and a win for me," Velazquez said. "Obviously, it turned out to be a great thing for myself."
Animal Kingdom won the Spiral Stakes on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park in his previous start. Though this was his first race on dirt, the winner had an easy trip, and Velazquez did a masterful job despite his unfamiliarity with the horse. They avoided trouble in the 19-horse field while running in the middle of the pack most of the way.
"Right about the quarter-pole he got really comfortable as soon as he got to the clear," Velazquez said. "He gave me that feeling that, man, he was running. He got to the lead and kept running. So very proud of the way he did everything."
Animal Kingdom swept past the leaders on the final turn and came flying home.
"I didn't have to do very much," Velazquez said. "He was going well the whole way around, so he gave me a lot of confidence to be where I was and when I asked him to do something he was there for me. A good horse gets you out of trouble."
Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch, who started from the inside rail, was vanned off the track with a leg injury and will need surgery for a non-life-threatening fracture.
Pacesetter Shackleford was fourth, followed by Irish import Master of Hounds, Santiva, Brilliant Speed and Dialed In.
Pants On Fire finished ninth, followed by Twice the Appeal, Soldat, Stay Thirsty, Derby Kitten, Decisive Moment, Archarcharch, Midnight Interlude, Twinspired, Watch Me Go and Comma to the Top, who chipped his left ankle and will be sidelined for at least two months.
Order of finish
1. Animal Kingdom
3. Mucho Macho Man
5. Master of Hounds
7. Brilliant Speed
8. Dialed In
9. Pants On Fire
10. Twice the Appeal
12. Stay Thirsty
13. Derby Kitten
14. Decisive Moment
16. Midnight Interlude
18. Watch Me Go
19. Comma to the Top