Derby jockey to ride with heavy heart
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — John Velazquez heard the news Thursday morning and felt his heart sink.
And it had nothing to do with Uncle Mo's derby status.
The filly that he rode in the Kentucky Derby one year ago, Devil May Care, had lost her battle with cancer.
"I was looking forward to riding her babies," a soulful Velazquez said inside the jockey room at Churchill Downs.
On Wednesday, the day Velazquez's Derby mount, Uncle Mo, was named the 9-2 second choice for Saturday's 137th Run for the Roses, Devil May Care was euthanized down the road in Lexington.
"She was a magnificent horse," Velazquez said. "I was so sad to hear what happened to her after all the things she has gone through."
Tragic injuries happen in horse racing. But this wasn't a shattered ankle or a debilitating case of laminitis. It was cancer, the scourge typically reserved for our species.
"How many times do you hear about a horse having cancer?" said Richard Migliore, who retired in 2008 after riding 4,400 winners in a 30-year career. "When (a horse) dies, it's just like people. If they've lived a long, full life and it's a natural thing, it's easier. But when you hear tragic stories, you always feel terrible."
Dr. Bonnie Barr, a New Castle native and an internal medicine specialist at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, said cancer in horses is an "uncommon occurrence," but not unusually rare.
"It happens," she said. "Some cases go undiagnosed. It's not as simple to diagnose cancer in horses as in humans. You can't just give them an MRI."
Devil May Care, who finished an overmatched 10th in last year's Kentucky Derby as she tried to become the first filly since 1988 to win the crown, became sick in October. The multiple Grade I-winning 4-year-old daughter of Malibu Moon was diagnosed with lymphosarcoma. Her health seemed to improve after being treated in Florida over the winter, but her condition deteriorated this spring.
"She got very sick last year, and she got very skinny," Velazquez said. "I saw her earlier this year at Palm Meadows (in Florida). She looked very sad."
Velazquez rode Devil May Care in eight of her nine career starts, including last year in the Kentucky Derby after the star of trainer Todd Pletcher's barn, Eskendereya, was injured.
"She was a unique horse," Velazquez said. "She was very quirky about things. It was her way or no way. She was a little bit difficult to ride, but at the same time, she was a lot of fun to ride. She had to do it her own way. It was her thing. You don't want to mess with her when she's in a bad mood. I got along with her. I liked her. I liked her a lot."
Velazquez, a two-time winner of the Eclipse Award as the nation's top jockey, could use some good news. He is winless in 12 previous Kentucky Derby mounts and will learn this morning whether he gets another shot Saturday. Uncle Mo owner Mike Repole, whose horse is recovering from a gastrointestinal infection, said a decision will be made on the reigning 2-year-old champion's health this morning.
As for Devil May Care, Velazquez kept her in his thoughts yesterday afternoon.
"I said my prayers and let her rest," he said.
On his first mount of the day, Velazquez rode More Than Minted, a 2-year-old filly. She was the third choice in a field of eight going 4 1⁄2 furlongs on the dirt. Velazquez won by a length.
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