A tale of two jockeys, one broken heart
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Robby Albarado walked briskly through the Churchill Downs paddock, away from the track that broke his heart Saturday. He held hands with his two sons, Kaden and Kash. The yellow silks he wore in the final race of the day were spattered with mud.His battered face told the sad story. The jockey's blackened eyes and swollen nose were gifts of Smoke'n Al, an utterly forgettable animal who altered the course of Kentucky Derby history. Wednesday afternoon, Albarado slipped off the 3-year-old colt, which was making its first career start, in the post parade before the third race at Churchill. Smoke'n Al stepped on the jockey's face, breaking his nose and necessitating stitches. The injury kept Albarado off his mounts Thursday. He also took off Friday, Kentucky Oaks day, as a precaution to be ready for the Derby, when he was scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom. But when Albarado took Friday off, Animal Kingdom owner Barry Irwin and trainer Graham Motion feared he wouldn't be 100 percent on Saturday and made the decision to take Albarado off the colt in the Derby. Irwin and Motion gave the keys to the "Kingdom" to John Velazquez. He just became available that morning when Uncle Mo, his scheduled Derby mount, was scratched for health reasons. It seemed like a trade down for Velazquez, since Uncle Mo was the 9-2 second choice in the morning line and Animal Kingdom was a 20-1 long shot. Instead, the hugely accomplished Velazquez wound up riding the colt that would take him to his first Derby victory after years of heartache. And just like that, the 37-year-old Albarado -- who won a stakes race Saturday on the Derby undercard -- wound up watching his mount surge to glory on the home stretch with a complete stranger on his back. The Derby almost always has a jarring plot twist or two. But this was an all-timer. "The proper thing to do is to congratulate Graham and Johnny," said Albarado, who has won many big races but never the Derby. "Johnny rode a great race. But you get taken off the day before? It's kind of sad." One jockey's sadness became another jockey's elation. Velazquez has himself been bruised by the Derby gods, losing top-shelf contenders the week of the race three straight years. Before Uncle Mo there was Eskendereya, the likely heavy favorite in 2010 who was scratched just days before the Derby, and before that was Quality Road, scratched the Monday of Derby week with a hoof injury. "Guess it was meant to be," Velazquez said. "A lot of things happen for a reason. It had to happen the way it happened today." The conflicting emotions were stark and trickled down from the two popular jockeys to two of their valets. Tony Millan, Velazquez's valet in New York for years and a close personal friend, bounded across the track after the Derby with tears streaming down his face. He embraced Velazquez's wife, Leona, and his two children, Lerina and Michael. "I've been in the jocks' room for 30 years, met thousands of riders," Millan said. "There is nobody who deserves this more than Johnny Velazquez. Whether it's the Kentucky Derby or a $7,000 claimer at Aqueduct, he does his job the same way. There is not a person in the world who isn't happy for Johnny Velazquez today." Actually, there were a few people. Mostly because they felt so badly for Albarado. "It's [expletive] hard, man," said Garrett Broussard, who has been Albarado's valet at Fair Grounds Park in New Orleans for 18 years. "Robby is such a great guy. I'm trying to look on the bright side, but I haven't found it yet." Albarado's home base is Churchill, so the jocks' quarters were as glum as you'll ever see them on Derby day. "If the owners had any class," someone said, "they'd give him a share."
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