OLDSMAR - Jose Velez Jr. is without question among the greatest jockeys in the history of Florida thoroughbred racing.
But last fall, the 44-year-old was forced to make a difficult decision: continue to ride the winter season in South Florida, where good rides were drying up, or pack up and find another place to do business.
On the advice of his agent, former Tampa Bay Downs leading rider Herson Sanchez, Velez came to TBD to ride regularly for the first time in his 27-year career. He is third in the jockey's standings (39 wins) and in race earnings ($565,467) through Thursday, and he thinks he made the right decision.
"Better than what I expected," Velez said of TBD. "No question, Tampa will be the future for years to come. The way Gulfstream is going, the money for jockeys at Gulfstream stinks, look at it. The money here is better than for the cheaper races at Gulfstream.
"If you're not working for the top trainers at Gulfstream, you're going to struggle. I'd rather come here, make a good living and go from there."
It should be noted that Gulfstream's purse sizes far outweigh those at TBD, and Gulfstream has five jockeys with more than $1 million in season earnings, compared to one (Daniel Centeno) for TBD. But had Velez ridden at Gulfstream, he likely wouldn't have had anywhere near the 232 rides he has had at TBD through Thursday, a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings.
Since arriving in Oldsmar, Velez has quickly earned a reputation as one of the top turf riders on the track. Through last week, he led all TBD jockeys by winning 25 percent of his turf races.
"The turf is very fair, you've got a shot with a lead horse or a horse that comes from off the pace," he said. "If you've got the best horse, you're going to win."
Though he had little time on the Tampa turf course before this year, Velez can't be considered short on experience. In 1982, he won leading rider titles at Gulfstream and Hialeah as a 19-year-old. He went on to win three more leading rider titles at Calder during the next decade, gaining election to the Calder Hall of Fame in 1997.
He has 3,080 career wins as of Thursday, and would like to reach the 4,000 before he retires. But Velez will turn 45 later this month, and he knows he is a long shot to reach that milestone.
"I think I'm a better rider now than when I was younger, I just don't ride the horses that I rode when I was younger," he said. "I'll ride five more years, probably - until I hit 50. If the business keeps going good, I'll keep going. If the business goes bad, you split."
STAKES SATURDAY: Velez rides Inda, in the money in nine of her last 10 starts, in today's $65,000 Wayward Lass Stakes (1 1/16 miles on the dirt for older fillies and mares).
The early race favorite is Cash's Girl, a Florida-bred trained by Timothy Ritchey and ridden by Pablo Morales. Also in the field is TBD 1 mile, 40 yards record-holder Lil's Lassie, trained by Michael Zwiesler.
AROUND THE TRACKS: Through Thursday, Centeno was on pace for 148 wins and $1,989,191 in earnings this meet, which would obliterate the track records he set last year (125 wins, $1,667,752). ...
Nominations for Festival Day's four stakes races (Tampa Bay Derby, Hillsborough Stakes, Florida Oaks, Turf Dash) will close tonight and be posted on tampabaydowns.com Sunday morning. ...
Lookinforthesecret, owned by Balkrisna Sukharan, trained by Jamie Ness and ridden by Centeno, notched its TBD-leading fourth win of the current meet in a $23,500 allowance race last Sunday, a five-furlong sprint on the dirt. ...
The $85,000 Sprint Classic final is tonight at Derby Lane (Race 10, 10:07 p.m.). Flying Stanley, the 2007 Derby Lane Million winner, was the leading qualifier and will break from Box 1.