Jockey leads HOF inductees

Updated: August 11, 2012, 1:10 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Bloodhorse



An emotional John Velazquez received a standing ovation from a standing-room only crowd Aug. 10 at Fasig-Tipton's Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as the jockey led five other inductees into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Trainer Roger Attfield, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper , and the late trainer Robert Wheeler joined Velazquez in the contemporary class of 2012, while historic inductees jockey Anthony Hamilton and the Thoroughbred horse Planet, who reigned as America's leading money-earner for 21 years, were also ushered in.

Velazquez, 40, stopped several times to regain his composure during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, during which he thanked "the people that have made me the Hall of Famer everybody will call me from now on."

After struggling to get through his opening remarks, Velazquez was joined on the podium by his wife Leona, who stood beside him as he went on to thank the owners, trainers, and behind-the-scenes workers who helped him on the way to more than 4,800 wins and a fourth-place all-time ranking in earnings with over $265 million.

Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher introduced Velazquez, with whom he has shared a good friendship and successful business relationship for several years. Velazquez was the 96th jockey to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"There's no magic number or certain amount of wins or money won or stake wins or what have you that makes someone eligible for the Hall of Fame, but whatever that magic number is, I think with Johnny's induction today the bar has been raised at every level," Pletcher said. "He's a terrific role model, a terrific husband, a caring father, and an all-around really super human being. No one deserves it more."

The native Puerto Rican was also honored by a resolution signed by the governor of Puerto Rico, and received a plaque from the jockey school of his native land.

Attfield, already a member of the Hall of Fame in Canada where he bases his stable, took the opportunity to speak from the heart to the audience. The 72-year-old Englishman has trained three Canadian Triple Crown winners among his winners of 1,731 races with earnings of more than $88 million, and has found considerable success in the U.S. as well as Canada.

"Without the horse, none of us would be here," Attfield said. "They're special animals -- noble, beautiful animals -- that, if kept healthy and sound and well, will always run their best for you. I think it's very, very important that we respect this. I'm kind of sad what's happening in racing today, all the bad publicity we're getting. I feel very strongly that we should be getting back to the way racing is supposed to be, where years ago on the heath in England one person would say to another, 'my horse is faster than your horse,' and they'd run against each other. The best horse should be able to win, and we've got to clean up some of this stuff that's going on out there and get rid of the rubbish."

Attfield also thanked the Thoroughbred retirement foundations that are working to help former runners move on to other disciplines in addition to the owners, jockeys, and teams that combined to bring him his winners. The trainer was introduced by David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group.

"Roger has an amazing capacity to train anything to do anything," Willmot remarked. "He just has feeling for any animal that is almost unequalled. His love and concern for the health and welfare of the horse is almost unmatched. He has an amazing ability to put a horse in a big race and at the same time keep that horse performing at a high level through the year and right through their career. He knows a happy horse, he knows how to keep a horse happy, and how to extend their careers."

Jeff Wheeler, a grandson of the late Robert Wheeler, also shared his pride as Wheeler was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame. The trainer, who passed away in 1992, won 1,336 races and trained for prominent owners such as C.V. Whitney, J. Rukin Jelks, Greentree Stable, and Nelson Bunker Hunt. He conditioned 56 stakes-winning horses, including 1982 champion older female Track Robbery.

"Our family is extremely proud of 'Gramps',"Jeff Wheeler said. "The statistics stand on their own but three words come to mind when I think of my grandfather. One was honor, he honored his profession; one was respect, I think he respected his horses above all and he respected his family and owners; and devotion to duty -- that man was devoted to what he did."

Elfrida Stronach, wife of owner Frank Stronach, accepted the trophy for 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, who won the Breeders' Cup Classic for the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel that year in track- and stakes-record time. The son of Awesome Again now stands stud at Stronach's Adena Springs Farm in Paris, Ky.

"We have a very special attachment to Ghostzapper," Stronach said. "You might do everything right on the farm. You might have good people looking after all your stock. And still you need the luck to come up with a special horse like that, so we were very blessed and we're still blessed to have him on our farm."

Sarah Wright, a descendant of Planet's owner, Major Thomas Doswell, accepted the plaque for Planet while wearing a jacket the same color as the silks of the historic runner. Foaled in 1855, Planet won 27 times and was considered second only to the mighty Lexington among the greatest American racehorses prior to the Civil War.

"It took him 150 years to get here," said Wright. "We are so proud."

Brien Bouyea, communications officer for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, accepted the plaque for historic jockey Anthony Hamilton, who rode from 1881-1904. Hamilton is the third African-American jockey to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Daily Racing Form editor and publisher emeritus Steven Crist had been scheduled to provide the keynote address, but was unable to attend due to the recent death of his mother, Judith Crist. New York Racing Association track announcer Tom Durkin served as master of ceremonies.

Trainers Janet Elliott, Allen Jerkens, D. Wayne Lukas, Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Carl Nafzger, and Nick Zito, and jockeys Jerry Bailey, Kent Desormeaux, Eddie Maple, Chris McCarron, Edgar Prado, Randy Romero, Jose Santos, and Ron Turcotte, were among the present Hall of Fame members given the other standing ovation of the day when introduced by Ed Bowen, chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee.