Tampa Bay Sports Day

Dunkirk Looks for a Rebound

ELMONT, NY- High-priced free-agents and wide-eyed rookies aren’t the only sporting participants to struggle playing in front of huge crowds.

Even horses can endure performance anxiety and nervousness. Dunkirk posted an 11th-place Kentucky Derby finish, stumbling twice in the first 50 yards amid the 153,563 fans at Churchill Downs.

Dunkirk skipped the Preakness but still garnered favorable 4-1 odds for the Belmont Stakes, making him the third choice for the 14st “Test of Champions” race Saturday. With nearly 100,000 people expected at Belmont Park, jockey John Velazquez said his colt should be able to deal with the pressures and crowd noise that come with a Triple Crown race.

“They get very nervous but I think he got it out of his system now,” Velazquez said instead the grandstand Thursday morning. “He’ll be more prepared for this race with that many people around.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher and Velazquez teamed up two years ago to forge racing history as the latter rode filly Rags to Riches to a Belmont Stakes victory in 2007. Pletcher did not run Rags to Riches in the Preakness that year. Since 2000, four horses have won the Belmont after running in the Derby but bypassing the second leg at Pimlico and Dunkirk’s team is hoping history repeats.

With more than 4,000 career victories to his credit, Velazquez earned the Eclipse Award as the country’s top jockey in 2004 and 2005. Pletcher won the same award for top trainer four straight years from 2004-07 and will be looking to upset favorite Mine That Bird and jockey Calvin Borel’s quest for a personal Triple Crown on two horses.

Dunkirk, the $3.7 million son of Unbridled Song, won his first two races and posted a second-place finish to winner Quality Road in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. The jockey-trainer tandem will look to parlay that quick start into the $1 million payout for the winner.

“We’ve been together since 1999 and we’ve been fortunes that we’ve had a lot of good horses,” Velazquez said. “It’s a relationship that’s grown for many years and it’s definitely a special one when we get to win these kind of races.”

A statute of Secretariat stands in Belmont Park’s paddock area, serving as a tribute to the record 31-length victory that made him the sport’s ninth Triple Crown winner in 1973. Seattle Slew and Affirmed added their names to that illustrious list in 1977 and 1978, respectively. But there will not be a 12th Triple Crown this year as the wait for another Triple Crown winner hits 31years.

Instead, Borel is going for his person history and added prerace excitement with his victory guarantee for Derby winner and Preakness runner-up Mine That Bird. Yet Velazquez said the boasts won’t serve as extra motivation to go for the upset.

“You definitely have to laugh that off,” he said. “I think he [Borel] is very positive about his horse. He’s very confident but horse racing never has guarantees.

“Horses are like people. You don’t know when they could have a headache or something that we don’t know about. That’s just an example of what can happen. There are never guarantees to win.”

Velazquez learned the business under Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. The two still speak regularly, though Velazquez said the conversations are less about strategy. With more than 900 New York riding titles compiled from 2001-2004, a Triple Crown victory and the aforementioned yearly accolades, the current West Hempstead native is past the point of needing constant advice on how to lead horses to victories.

“He doesn’t say much now,” Velazquez said. “In the early stages of my career, we talked a lot… before the races. I’ve grown into myself and been fortunate that I’ve been successful, so he lets me do my own thing.”