Until Friday morning, Velazquez was scheduled to be aboard the much-ballyhooed Uncle Mo. As of that time, Robby Albarado was still intended for Animal Kingdom, but barely. Albarado, who had been laid up for most of the winter with a broken foot and had experienced domestic difficulties shortly after returning, was thrown from his mount in the post parade for the third race on Wednesday.
Albarado was kicked in the face, suffering a broken nose, with the result that he did not ride his scheduled mounts on Thursday. As things developed, Friday became the critical day in the process that landed Velazquez on the Churchill Downs' presentation stand.
Early in the morning, owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher announced the withdrawal of Uncle Mo because had not recovered from the gastrointestinal malady that compromised his effort four weeks ago in the Wood Memorial. This was bad news, indeed, for Velazquez, who, in an instant went from riding the probable second choice to being without a Derby mount.
Meanwhile, Barry Irwin, who manages the partnership that owns Animal Kingdom, and Graham Motion, the colt's trainer, took note of the availability of one of the country's leading riders. And they were concerned about Albarado's physical ability to ride to the best of his ability.
"Graham and I talked about it, and our decision was that if Robby rode on Friday, we would go with him," Irwin said in the post-Derby news conference. "If he didn't, that would be a telltale sign."
Albarado took off his mounts on Friday, which included Bouquet Booth in the Kentucky Oaks, and Irwin and Motion made the decision to offer the mount to Velazquez. The acceptance was immediate and the age-old play of one man's bad fortune being another man's good luck was at work.
Despite his unfamiliarity with Animal Kingdom, Velazquez gave the colt a picture-perfect ride in the Derby. The closest he had come in his 12 previous Derby trips was a second aboard Invisible Ink in '01, and knowledgeable observers of the racing scene conceded that "Johnny V." was overdue.
Velazquez has been a star for most of his 22-year career as a reinsman, winning Eclipse Awards in '04 and '05. He is currently a nominee for thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame and is a prohibitive favorite to be elected.
When asked whether he felt bad for Albarado, Velazquez responded, "Well, you definitely feel bad. This business is a roller coaster, basically, and I've been on the other end as well. I've been hurt and seen the horses I'd been riding winning for others. But I told Robby not to worry, that he'd be taken care of if we win this race."