LAS VEGAS--It is hard to imagine a more qualified understudy than jockey John Velázquez.
He has earned a record $366 million in his Hall of Fame riding career. So when a hand injury prevented Frankie Dettori from adding to his record 56 Royal Ascot victories, Velázquez got the sudden call as he arrived Tuesday in England to ride the star American filly Lady Aurelia.
As he did when he was a substitute in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, Velázquez responded with one of the biggest victories of his career.
Barely six weeks after his second Derby win, Velázquez confidently rode Lady Aurelia to a three-length victory over the long shot Profitable and track favorite Marsha to win the $504,680 Group 1 King’s Stand Stakes on the first day of Royal Ascot.
While it was the third time Velázquez won at England’s biggest racing carnival, it was his first Group 1 win there. And it was U.S. trainer Wesley Ward’s eighth time into the Royal Ascot winner’s enclosure. Two of those eight times have been with Lady Aurelia. The filly sired by Scat Daddy also won last year’s Group 2 Queen Mary Stakes for 2-year-olds.
“That was awesome,” Ward said. “Lady Aurelia is a very special filly. To duplicate what she did last year, she is a once-in-a-lifetime horse. She loves it over here.”
On a clear, 84-degree day with 44,235 well-heeled race-goers on hand, Lady Aurelia stayed close to the lead for most of the five-furlong race on the firm turf straightaway at Ascot. Velázquez had her in second place behind pace-setting long shot Take Cover before seizing the lead going into the final furlong. After that it was no contest except with the clock, which stopped at 57.45 seconds, only a hundredth of a second off the course record on a day when the ground was playing fast.
Velázquez only found out he would get the call on Lady Aurelia and some other Dettori mounts as he was arriving at Heathrow Airport on Tuesday morning, preparing to ride for Ward in a race much later in the day.
“I got off the plane and was in customs,” Velázquez said. “The phone was ringing and ringing, but I couldn’t answer it. As soon as I was out I picked up the phone, and that’s when I found out I was riding her.”
Velázquez was needed because Dettori had a paddock accident last week at Yarmouth. Dettori had hoped to recover but ultimately decided Tuesday morning he could not ride this week at Ascot. So Velázquez was called upon much as he was six years ago, when Robby Albarado got hurt three days before the Kentucky Derby. Velázquez replaced Albarado on board Animal Kingdom and got his first Derby win.
“For me this is a blessing,” Velázquez said. “Not to take anything away from Frankie. He’s a good friend of mine, and I feel really bad for him.”
Although Lady Aurelia was the 2-1 favorite in U.S. betting, she was the 7-2 second choice in England, where Marsha was the 11-4 favorite after wins in her two most recent races.
With the Breeders’ Cup the long-term goal, Ward said he would probably keep Lady Aurelia in England for at least one more race in August. “I need to sit down with the owners (led by Barbara Banke), but I would like to go to the Nunthorpe Stakes at York with her next.”
In a later race Tuesday, American-born British banker Rich Ricci saw his gelding Thomas Hobson (4-1 in the U.K., 7-2 in the U.S.) win the 2½-mile Ascot Stakes handicap. Ridden by three-time British champion jockey Ryan Moore, the 7-year-old is expected to take aim in November on Australia’s most famous race – the $4.7 million Melbourne Cup.
With Queen Elizabeth II continuing her 72-year record of perfect attendance at Royal Ascot, the first day was dominated by the troubled Godolphin stable, which won three races for owner Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai.
Four-year-old colt Ribchester (11-10 U.K., 7-5 U.S.) opened the five-day festival with his third Group 1 victory, holding on to win the one-mile Queen Anne Stakes by 1¼ lengths. It was one of two winners for jockey William Buick. Two U.S.-based horses finished far back. Todd Pletcher-trained American Patriot finished 11th, and Graham Motion’s Miss Temple City was 13th in the field of 16.
Barney Roy (5-2 U.K., 29-10 U.S.) took the lead late and scored an upset victory for Godolphin over Lancaster Bomber, Thunder Snow and odds-on favorite Churchill in the Group 1 St. James’s Palace Stakes for 3-year-olds racing over 7½ furlongs. Thunder Snow is best remembered as the horse that made like a bucking bronco coming out of the gate last month in the Kentucky Derby.
In Buick’s second win of the day, Sound And Silence (16-1 U.K., 18-1 U.S.) and Roussel finished one-two for Godolphin, just a neck apart in the five-furlong Windsor Stakes for 2-year-olds. Ward’s two horses – Elizabeth Darcy and Nootka Sound – finished sixth and 17th, respectively, in the field of 22.
The Godolphin victories came just two weeks after John Ferguson resigned as the stable’s chief executive. Sheikh Mohammed’s longtime bloodstock expert wound up in a row with trainer Saeed Bin Suroor, who exposed the rift in a story published in the Racing Post. Ferguson had assumed control and clean-up duty three years ago at Godolphin after a steroid scandal led to the firing of trainer Mahmoud Al Zarooni and the exit of racing manager Simon Crisford.
In the closest race of opening day, Rajasinghe (11-1 U.K., 13-1 U.S.) held on to win by a nose over Headway in the Group 2 Coventry Stakes, a six-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds. In only his second race after breaking his maiden last month at Belmont Park, Arawak finished 12th for Ward and Velázquez, a little more than a half-hour before they would collect the King’s Stand trophy from Prince William and Duchess Kate.