It was deja-boo-boo all over again for jockey John Velazquez.
When Eskendereya was withdrawn from consideration for Saturday's Kentucky Derby because of a leg injury, it marked the second consecutive year Velazquez lost a top-ranked contender less than a week before the race. Last year, Velazquez learned five days before the Derby that Quality Road, who would have been the first or second choice, was going to miss the race because of a quarter crack.
"It hurts, but I'm not going to kill myself over it," Velazquez said Sunday morning. "There's nothing I can do. It's out of my hands. The best way to take it is, it's not meant to be. Hopefully, I get another chance at it."
As he did last year, when he rode longshot Mr. Hot Stuff, Velazquez has picked up another mount for the Derby, the filly Devil May Care. Velazquez is the regular rider of Devil May Care, who had been pointing to Friday's Kentucky Oaks before Eskendereya's defection from the Derby.
"I think she's definitely a very talented horse," Velazquez said. "One thing I can say is, a mile and a quarter is not going to hurt her at all. I don't know if she's as good as the colts, but she'll be very competitive."
Still, the loss of Eskendereya - who was dominant in winning the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial - continued a long list of Derby disappointments for Velazquez. Since riding his first Derby in 1996, Velazquez is 0 for 11 in the race. Only five jockeys - Alex Solis, Corey Nakatani, Shane Sellers, Johnny Adams, and Douglas Dodson - have ridden more Derby mounts without winning.
"Part of it is, you have to be lucky," Velazquez, 38, said a week before he learned of Eskendereya's defection. "If it's meant to be for you, it's meant to be for you."
It has yet to be meant to be for Velazquez, who has ridden 4,295 winners in his 20-year career. He has never ridden a favorite in the race. His two shortest-priced horses were Saarland (2002) and Bandini (2005), both of whom were 6-1. Saarland finished 10th, and Bandini finished 19th. Both came out of their races with chips that required surgery.
Velazquez's best finish in the Derby came in 2001 with Invisible Ink, a 55-1 shot who finished second to Monarchos and a nose in front of Congaree.
"Monarchos ran by me like I was standing still, but he chafed me up a little bit and almost cost me second, so I claimed foul because I didn't know if I got second or not," Velazquez said.
Velazquez finished last in the first three Derbys he rode: aboard Built for Pleasure (1996), Basic Trainee (1998), and the filly Three Ring (1999). In Three Ring's case, she got bumped coming out of the gate and the saddle slipped.
In 2000, Velazquez finished fourth aboard More Than Ready, who was beaten six lengths by Fusaichi Pegasus after tiring in the final furlong.
"It was just a little far for him," Velazquez said. "I believe he was laying third or fourth the whole way. I got through on the inside and got bumped at the quarter pole. At the eighth pole, it looked like I was going to get to the lead, and not much past the eighth pole he stopped."
After missing the race in 2003, Velazquez rode Pollard's Vision, who finished 17th in 2004.
Perhaps the most disappointing year for Velazquez was 2006. He was the regular rider of Bluegrass Cat. Immediately after Bluegrass Cat finished fourth under Velazquez in the Blue Grass Stakes, trainer Michael Matz offered Velazquez the mount on Barbaro because he hadn't gotten a firm commitment from jockey Edgar Prado, according to Angel Cordero, Velazquez's agent. Five days later, Velazquez suffered a fractured shoulder in a spill at Keeneland and was out about a month. Cordero had not made a decision by the time Velazquez got hurt. Barbaro, of course, won the Derby that year. Bluegrass Cat was second.
In 2005, when Velazquez rode Bandini, he could have also ridden Afleet Alex, who finished third in the Derby. Velazquez had ridden Afleet Alex in the Rebel Stakes, a race in which the horse finished last but was found to have had a lung infection. Though Velazquez had told Cordero he wanted to ride Afleet Alex back when he ran again, Velazquez had to ride Bandini in the Blue Grass the same day. Bandini won the Blue Grass, and Afleet Alex and won the Arkansas Derby.
In 2007, Velazquez rode Circular Quay to a sixth-place finish in the Derby. In 2008, he was aboard Cowboy Cal, who finished ninth and was found to have bled afterward.
While Velazquez has taken his misfortune in the Derby in stride, Cordero said he was devastated to learn of Eskendereya's defection. Cordero appears to want a Derby victory for Velazquez even more than Velazquez himself.
"The feeling of winning the Derby is so hard to describe," said Cordero, a three-time Derby winner in his Hall of Fame riding career. "It's accomplishing the greatest thing anybody could do."
"This is his dream," Velazquez said. "He says, 'You don't understand.' I say, 'I do understand.' He says, 'No you don't.' I don't want to put my hopes so high. I don't want to crash again."
Those hopes may have crashed, but they haven't burned.