Thursday, April 19, 2012
Kevin Velez, Valet
When jockeys enter the room, their focus narrows to their mounts and winning races. The task of helping them prepare falls to their valets, who handle many of the small details that can affect a rider’s performance. Setting out equipment, polishing boots and saddles, equipping helmets with goggles and purchasing drinks and vitamins is only the beginning. Valets assist trainers with saddling and help unsaddle horses after a race. They are also responsible to ensure riders carry the proper weight and wear the correct silks. Kevin Velez, a 24-year-old valet for third-leading rider Angel Serpa at Tampa Bay Downs, was born to the job: his father is jockey Jose Velez Jr., who has won more than 3,000 races. Jose and Karla Velez, Kevin’s mother, live in south Florida. Kevin’s older brother Jason is a valet at Monmouth Park. His sister Amber is a college freshman and younger brother Anden is in eighth grade. Kevin’s grandparents, John and Judy Sessa, are Thoroughbred breeders and owners. Kevin has worked as a foreman for trainers Kelly Breen and Jane Cibelli and hopes to one day operate his own stable.
The most difficult thing for a valet is trying to be perfect. When your riders look at their stuff that they are paying you to take care of, you want them to think ‘Yeah, he’s doing the job.’ One time I sent a rider out for a route race with turf goggle equipment. He didn’t have enough goggles, and he really couldn’t see for part of the race.
He didn’t yell at me afterward; he pulled me off to the side and talked to me like a man. But I still felt bad, because I’m getting paid to make sure my jockeys have the right equipment. He just told me ‘Kevin, pay more attention. I understand you’re busy, but can you please make sure it doesn’t happen the next time?’
I give these guys a lot of credit. I’ve seen some of them go in the hot box for a long time, just to lose enough weight to ride that one horse. It can be 2-1 or 30-1, it doesn’t matter. They love doing what they do, and you can’t take it away from them. They have a passion for it.
There are a lot of jockeys I look up to, but my father is absolutely my favorite. He didn’t graduate from high school, but he would do anything to provide for his family. He would cut off his right arm to save one of our lives. Whatever he needed to do to make weight, he’d do it to make sure we had food on the table.
I started hanging around the jockeys’ room when I was 7. My father rode at Calder and in New Jersey during the summer, and it was a lot of fun growing up in that environment. He rode a lot of big horses. In 2002, he was second in the Dubai World Cup on a horse named Sei Mi. Two years before that – when I was 13 – I kicked our TV and broke it when he and North East Bound got beat on the wire by War Chant and Gary Stevens in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.
In 2003, we were all at Monmouth when my father won the $750,000 United Nations Handicap on the turf for trainer Todd Pletcher on Balto Star, who was a 37-1 shot and set a track record. My father was the only local rider in the race. It was funny because our suits got on the wrong plane, so we are in the win photo wearing dress jeans and polo shirts.
My father always had a great relationship with the guys he competed against, and those friendships extended to our family. I call Alex Solis my uncle; we really aren’t related, but he is a great friend to us. Edgar Prado and John Velazquez have always been nice to us. Marland Suckie is my dad’s best friend and has been like a second father to me. Joe Bravo used to invite us places, and he went to the Bahamas with us on a vacation.
When we were kids and my dad rode at Gulfstream, we would play volleyball and cook out on the beach on dark days. Down here, we have the same kind of relationship among some of the riders and valets. We relax, hang out and play volleyball, then we go to someone’s house and have barbecue. It is more or less an extended family.
I learned from a very young age that injuries are part of the business. When jockeys get hurt, they can be out a week or six months. In 1990, my father was the jockey on Unbridled, but he got injured and couldn’t ride him when he won the Kentucky Derby.
I was too young to remember Unbridled, but my father never let what happened become a negative. He told us you have to keep pushing forward to do better, that hopefully you get another shot to get a horse like that. Obviously, he proved the truth of that by his example.
As a valet, I wouldn’t say I have anything to do with a jockey winning, but you make sure that saddle he uses to ride a $150,000 race has the proper equipment on it. You want to make sure the saddle isn’t going to have an iron fall out or a billet break (the billets are the straps attaching to the girth to anchor the saddle). If it isn’t done properly, the saddle can slip and a jockey can fall and be severely hurt.
From being around horse racing, I’ve learned there are jobs everywhere. You just have to work for it, and what you learn can set you up for your career. If I become a trainer, but it doesn’t work out and a track needs a valet, I’ve got that skill. Or if this doesn’t work out, I know how to groom a horse or be a hotwalker. The more you know in this sport, the more likely you are to be successful.
I learn something new on the job every day. I’m always learning from the more experienced valets in the room. Mr. Eddie Mirabona has been here a long time and taught me a lot. William Newkirk and Timmy O’Connor have been very helpful with their suggestions, and Paico is very good at cleaning tack and knowing what to use on a saddle so it won’t be too slippery. If anyone gets in a jam, someone is there to help out.
I usually get to the room by 10 a.m. and check my riders’ equipment. If they have broken goggles, or if a saddle or stirrup is broken, I let them know it’s time to order more or that it’s not safe. You set their helmet up, make sure they have the right silks going out and clean their boots. I also provide other things like Red Bull, Gatorade, Coke or water, candy to snack on after a race or chewing gum.
All jockeys have their own preferences when it comes to goggles. In a turf race, some jockeys want only one clear pair and one dark pair. For a sprint race, they might want two clear and one dark, or three clear and one dark for a route race. You just have to remember what each rider likes. Luis Garcia likes two clear pairs and one dark for a turf race; he likes that extra protection if a chunk of turf hits him.
Probably my most embarrassing moment came on my first day last season, when I switched the silks and the helmet covers for two of my riders, Luis Garcia and Freddie Lenclud. Both of their trainers were standing by the door, and when they came out the trainers both said ‘Why are you wearing my silks?’ Luis and Freddie came back in and I started switching everything off them. I was lucky it was a turf race and I didn’t have to add too many goggles.
Those guys were just laughing at me. They are pretty easy to work with. Jockeys are very good to work with – they are not prima donnas.
Jockeys go into slumps like any athlete, so you always have to keep your riders positive. When Luis Garcia was here, he would ask me to watch a replay with him and say ‘What do you think?’ I might tell him, ‘You should have gone this way’ or done something differently.
Basically, all the riders in our corner of the room will help each other out. You really don’t want a lot of negativity in the corner because then everyone gets grumpy.
I graduated from Cypress Bay High School in Weston and attended Broward Community College for a year, but it was too boring. I was also working at a restaurant and had the same schedule every day.
What it really came down to was, I was missing the horses. The racetrack life is fast-paced, it’s action all the time. There is always something going on.
I started working for trainer Kelly Breen when I was 14. I started as a hot walker and grooming horses, then he asked me to be his foreman. This was before he won the Belmont with Ruler On Ice, but he had a lot of nice horses then like Bold Union, West Side Bernie and Atomic Rain. He also took me to the Keeneland sales, and it was great experience seeing how that worked.
The past couple of summers, I’ve worked for Jane Cibelli at Monmouth. She is very one-on-one with her horses and I’ve learned a lot being around her. I help with the tack and equipment, setting up the feed, making sure every horse gets their supplements. I’ve actually worked for Kelly and Jane when they won meet titles, which is very cool.
My grandmother, Judy Sessa, is probably one of my best friends. She always looks for the best in people and encourages you to do your best and strive for your goals. When I was younger, she told me if you don’t take your shot at doing something in life, you’ll never be able to live with yourself. She has always pushed me to do what I want, and I know she was very happy when I was working for Kelly and Jane.
I would like to take a shot as a trainer, but that is down the road. Being a valet is a great job. As a young person, I’m fortunate to have my family supporting me from home and my racetrack family teaching me what it takes.