If Jose Dan Velez looks as if he's been here before, there's a reason. The leading trainer in Puerto Rico this year was at Gulfstream Park last December, when he saddled Mishegas to victory in the Copa Invitacional.
But the comfort factor doesn't stop there. Velez, 42, spent the winter of 2017-18 in South Florida for Gulfstream's prestigious Championship Meet and extended his stay into the summer months before returning to his native country.
“It's all very familiar,” Velez said. “I know the track, I know the people and I'm familiar with everything here. I feel comfortable. I'm very ready for the day.”
Velez brought several horses with him to Gulfstream for Sunday's Clasico Internacional del Caribe, a program of five stakes worth nearly $700,000 in purses – Latin America and the Caribbean's premier Thoroughbred event.
This marks the third consecutive year for the Clasico at Gulfstream, which in 2017 became the first pari-mutuel facility outside Latin America or the Caribbean to host the event since its inception in 1966.
The highlight of the day is the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe for 3-year-olds, a race in which Velez has a major player in Establo Las Viudas' Papa Candelo, undefeated in four starts including the Clasico Antonio Mongil (G2) and Antonio Fernandez Castrillon (G2) at Camarero racetrack in his last two races.
Velez also entered Puerto Rico's 2017 Triple Crown winner Justiciero in the $100,000 Copa Confraternidad; Don Ruben and El Furioso Afy in the $115,000 Copa Velocidad; Best Trebol in the $86,500 Copa Dama and Little Paul and Secret Passage in the $85,000 Copa Invitacional.
“It's exciting,” Velez said. “I'm so happy and I thank God to be able to have the opportunity to be able to compete in races like this.”
Velez won six of 37 starts during the 2017-18 Championship Meet with 11 seconds, eight thirds and $191,270 in purse earnings. Among his victories was a maiden triumph by the filly Alter Moon, who made her first seven starts with Velez and would go on to run sixth in the Davona Dale (G3) and fifth in the Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2).
Just weeks after the meet ended, Alter Moon ran second in the Game Face Stakes before notching back-to-back victories including the Azalea Stakes in June. Following that race, Alter Moon – who sold for $22,000 as a 2-year-old in training – would fetch $675,000 at Fasig-Tipton's summer horses of racing sale and was moved to trainer Chad Brown, for whom she went winless in five starts.
Soon, Velez was on his way back to Puerto Rico where he currently has 90 horses in training. According to Equibase statistics, he owns 915 career wins from 3,818 starters and has won 46 group stakes since 2006, 23 of them Group 1 races, including the 2016 Copa Confraternidad with Arquitecto.
“I try to learn. I study every trainer and read a lot and watch a lot,” Velez said. “I don't know everything, but I think every day I learn something new. That's the way I've had my success and been able to win a lot of races. There is always something to learn.”
Velez's early education and introduction to horses came from his father, trainer Jose Enrique Velez, who won 73 of 815 starts between 1994 and 2017.
“My father was a trainer. He was the one who brought me here,” Velez said. “Everything that I learned was from my father. Everything that I do is dedicated to him.”
Though Velez is at ease in his surroundings, don't be fooled by his demeanor. Calm and soft-spoken on the outside, he is bursting with pride and confidence in his horses.
“It's important to my team and my country. I'm going to try to win all five races if I can, but I know it's going to be very tough,” Velez said. “It's going to be hard. It's not easy to win even one race. But me and my group are working toward it and we are going to try the best we can.”
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