#WeStandWithLiam: Hall Of Famer Velazquez Takes A Stand Against Bullying

by | 12.01.2017 | 3:27pm
The orange band around John Velazquez' right leg when he won the Breeders' Cup Distaff with Forever Unbridled was in honor of his nephew's fight against bullying.

Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez is collaborating with the New York Racing Association in an effort to promote awareness about the effects of bullying. On Saturday at Aqueduct, the day of the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, the second race on the card will be named “A Salute To Liam O'Brien,” and jockeys will wear orange bands throughout the card to show their support.

O'Brien is Velazquez' nephew, and recently endured a three-month stay in the hospital to recover from depression, an eating disorder and malnutrition brought on by bullying he experienced in middle school. The boy's mother, Deirdre Fell-O'Brien, wrote about their experience in a Facebook post on Oct. 18, and the story ended up going viral; the hashtag #WeStandWithLiam was used to demonstrate widespread community support against bullying. The story was later picked up by both ABC News and the Today Show.

“(The community support) has been nothing short of really almost miraculous,” Liam O'Brien's father, Thoroughbred trainer Keith O'Brien told ABC News. “When something like this happens, you always think the worst, but I've realized how many good people there really are still out there.”

At the Breeders' Cup last month, Velazquez showed his support for his nephew with an orange leg band that was prominently displayed when he rode Forever Unbridled to victory in the Distaff. On his way back to the winner's circle, Velazquez dedicated the win to Liam in an interview with Donna Brothers on the NBC Sports telecastHe and wife Leona O'Brien are dedicated to supporting their nephew's road to recovery.

“We love him,” said Leona O'Brien. “To see your nephew in that kind of position, struggling and broken, you want to do everything in your power to help. Hopefully it will open people's eyes as to what can happen and how bad it can be. We just wanted to help in whatever way we can.”

The bullying Liam O'Brien experienced began in the seventh grade, but it escalated in the summer of 2017.

“My beautiful son Liam turned 13 years old on September 8,” wrote Fell-O'Brien in her Facebook post. “He should be in school with his friends getting excited about high school and playing soccer, but he is not. He is at a medical center in Princeton NJ being treated for depression and an eating disorder. He has actually been hospitalized for 5 weeks. He hasn't been home or slept in his bed. He hasn't been able to watch football with his dad on Sundays. How did we get here?”

Liam O'Brien and his mother, Deirdre Fell-O'Brien (Facebook Photo)

After making his seventh-grade soccer team, Liam O'Brien suddenly stopped wanting to hang out with his friends and was eating noticeably less food. At the end of the school year, he was punched in the face on his way to the school bus. Rather than play soccer over the summer between seventh and eighth grade, the teen chose to go spend time at Saratoga with his father. When Liam came home, his weight loss was severe enough that he needed to be hospitalized for eight days.

His mother believed that pulling Liam out of the hospital and sending him back to school with his friends would be the best decision for her son, and went as far as to meet with guidance counselors and school staff to make them aware of his situation. When school started, things were not any better.

“Liam came home on Friday with a bruise on his face,” Fell-O'Brien wrote. “That was his birthday and we went out to celebrate that night. He didn't eat. He barely ate the rest of the weekend. He lost five pounds that first week back. That Monday he didn't go to school. We sat at the kitchen table and we cried and I said please tell me what happened. He finally couldn't hold it in anymore. He told me he was bullied terribly in seventh grade. It started when he made the soccer team. Two kids told him he sucked and shouldn't have made the team. There were unnecessary pushes and kicks. He was told he was weird, he was fat, his freckles were weird, his eyebrows were weird. They used horrible language and called him nasty words. I asked him how often it happened. He looked at me crying and said, ‘Every day, mom.'

“They broke him, he believed he was no good and stopped playing soccer because it just reminded him of them.”

Liam was admitted to the hospital for a second time, and had to be fitted with both a feeding tube and a heart monitor due to the extent of his malnutrition. He stayed in the hospital, away from his family, for an entire three months. Perhaps seeing his Hall of Fame uncle supporting him on television during the Breeders' Cup was a part of the reason that the teen was finally able to be released from the hospital.

Today, Liam O'Brien is at home with his family. He is on the road to recovery but still has a long journey in front of him. He will be present at Aqueduct on Saturday, watching all the jockeys show their support and enjoying the race named in his honor.

To donate in support of Liam O'Brien's medical expenses, the family has set up a GoFundMe page here.

  • Marlaine Meeker

    So sad. I wish more fellow students would step up when this happens. When I was a kid, being a bully was a bad thing and they would be excluded or stood up to by a lot of us. When confronted by a group they usually stopped their behavior because basically they are cowards. Our anthem was Hey, why don’t you pick on someone your own size. Hang in there Liam.

    • lastromntribune

      because basically they are cowards…100%

  • copperhead

    John Velazquez has always come across as a classy, stand-up man and hopefully his family will pull together. No child should have to dread going to school every day.

    Racing sends horribly mixed messages about taking care of one’s self. It often glorifies male jockeys as as “tough and hard-working” if they return to riding quickly after serious injuries and maintain weights that that would qualify a rider as anorexic or bulimic in other walks of life. Here is a young boy who has been horribly treated and fallen prey to an eating disorder. Who knows how much seeing extreme weight loss and dieting around the track through his family’s profession might have made this an unconsciously acceptable or even a socially positive way to deal with the pain he was in?

    • Pace Player

      I think it is a stretch to think he wasn’t eating because his uncle is a jockey. He wasn’t eating because he couldn’t. He lost all his appetite due to severe depression.

  • Jon

    Great job Chelsea Harkbath.

  • Richard C

    When you see it….take steps to stop it.

  • Curt_Muth

    Great move by John.

    But it is a big problem when the POTUS is condoning bullying and is doing it on a daily basis.
    How do you tell kids that it is wrong when they see it being applauded by half the US population?

    • Michael Castellano

      Half the country is too generous a figure. The “Bully of the Year” didn’t even get half the votes. And most of those that do not vote despise him and both parties, and is a large section of the country.

      • Curt_Muth

        Still hard to tell the kids that it’s wrong when the POTUS does it regularly no matter what percentage approves of his behavior.

        • Always Curious

          Horse poo! If you seeing bullying going on by anyone it is the time to teach your kids right from wrong and how to conduct themselves. It’s not hard to tell them at all.

        • Michael Castellano

          He is our worst nightmare come true. And the Congress is run by criminals in suits and ties.

          • Salvatore Monaco

            Wow , Johnny V great move and beautiful gesture. Wishing your nephew all the best and strength needed to survive this tough world. M. C what has the president done to bully people ? How should a person act when all he does is get criticize by fake news? Isn’t fake news a form of bullying just in a different way? Aren’t you bullying the president by your remarks? What are your plans today are you going to the track and doing something positive today?

        • Salvatore Monaco

          Yes I still wish Obama was president , he did a great job for all Americans? Remember the wealth disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest grew the most under president Obama.

        • Salvatore Monaco

          Curt, who was the last person bullied by the president?

      • Salvatore Monaco

        Mike tell me who has the president bullied? D President Obama bully anybody to get obama care passed?

    • McGov

      Couldn’t agree more. Biggest bully ever is leading the way. Men, women, entire populations….perpetually bullied in a daily frenzy of fear mongering…..or is this the “art of the deal”…..and he’s just acting like a bully but is REALLY a nice –non bully– in real life. LOL. Perhaps he is the second actor to fill this seat???
      It rips apart the very fabric of what we are to be lead by men/women without any sense of what is decent. I cannot think of any more effective way to poison the process of shaping tomorrows leaders.
      Hard to imagine, we are here…..that one event set in motion and forever changed what we are and what we will be.
      We need more JVs. GO LIAM!!

      • Gls

        Don’t forget bullies are the biggest cowards. They are afraid of being exposed as the biggest POS they are.

      • Yes, there has been a lot of fear mongering but it started many years ago. And yes by the government – long before Trump. And it still continues today, by the government and by the health industry. Think of the television commercials. Baby-boomers might have Hep C, they should get tested. Get your flu shot! You could have . . .

      • Salvatore Monaco

        McGovern you are so right ! When people lie and criticize ( fake news) you all the time , you should just lie down and take it, don’t fight back just keep being bullied. How is your 401 doing today?

    • Genellen

      Couldn’t agree more. It’s shameful and disgusting. There are too many role models for bad behavior in America these days, starting at the top. I pity the struggles parents have to go through dealing with Internet garbage on top of it. Good for Johnny V.

    • jacob.bratcher

      I disagree. Trump isn’t the problem; we all are. Sadly, it’s hypocritical for us Americans to act surprised or appalled by the Trump administration as if its negative traits aren’t a direct mirror of our society’s vices.

      • Curt_Muth

        Yes, the whole society is to blame. But to say Trump isn’t the problem is hypocritical when even his wife apologies for his behavior.

        • jacob.bratcher

          It might just be semantics, my friend. Most historians today agree that the times produce the man, not vice versa. Is the current administration really the problem, or merely the symptom of a more systemic problem? 🤔

          • Michael Castellano

            Authoritarian leaders and many dictators have no power without significant popular support. He represents all that is rotten, racist, and corrupt in America.

          • OopsyDaisy3

            Well show us all how to be perfect Michael.

      • Michael Castellano

        True, but Trump is now the captain of the Titanic, which is headed for the bottom of the sea.

        • Always Curious

          Bill Clinton did a wonderful thing teaching us all that oral sex is not sex so shut the heck up about Trump. I come on here to talk horses. You know a lot about horses. I would like to hear more from you on that. Why not leave out the Presidents unless they directly affect horse racing? I could go on and on about what is wrong in politics on here but I choose not too. Horses are my refuge. There are plenty of other hours in the day to focus on politics and all that is wrong with our politicians.

          • Michael Castellano

            I agree Clinton is a creep, but so is Trump.

        • Salvatore Monaco

          Mike be positive stock market way up . Consumer confidence up. Why are we headed for the bottom? What makes you be such a Debbie downer?

    • Always Curious

      Heaven help us all! This poor boy. Dragging the President into this discussion is absurd. He did not start this. It detracts from this boy’s story and what bullying is like. My children experienced bullying long before he took office. 20 yrs ago my daughter was stalked in middle school by another girl with a knife. She had to be escorted to class by the police officer assigned to the school. There were groups of “mean girls” who threatened and trashed her emotionally. She did nothing to these kids.

      My other child has a physical disability that caused her difficulty walking. In the 3rd grade an older girl tied her shoe laces together and she fell down the school bus stairs. The girl’s brother was in the same class as her and would step on her feet and grind his shoes. It was hard for her to speak up. I did and that same day the principal had both parents in her office and laid down the law. The blame squarely lies at the feet of the parents who teach by example by emotionally abusing their own kids and the way their parents treat other people. Bullying starts at home.

      • Ida Lee

        You know Always….there used to be a bumper sticker with the message “I’m Pregnant and It’s Nixon’s Fault”….people just don’t know when to stop….

    • venetian

      Umm curt you must see something I don’t

    • whirlaway

      My parents raised two children and your response would not have gotten to square one with my extremely tough Mother. She was raised by an abusive Father when it was kept quiet she lifted herself above that situation and anyone’s bad behavior including those that are famous would not be tolerated, if we tried to say so and so does that. her response was i am not raising that person you are my child and your behavior is a reflection on me and nobody will make me look bad even my child. Almost every President has had some undesirable character traits about them but then I am not an admirer of most major politicians and would certainly not look to them as examples.

    • Matthew Weaver

      The fact that a snowflake has to bring our President into the discussion shows Curt’s lack of intelligence.. if anything, Trump’s the one who gets bullied every day by the mainstream media. Regardless, I do believe that the overuse of social media n violent video games by children has really damaged their interpersonal skills. I hope the boy also gets some karate or boxing lessons. Not to beat others up but it gives confidence n positive self discipline. I wish him all the best.

      • Gls

        You know we can hear you!!??

      • Beau Geste

        Karate or boxing lessons would be great for his confidence, but it would be okay for him to use it on the bully too. An attitude adjustment would seem to be perfectly in order. I had one bully experience as a child; he stopped immediately when I punched him in the face.

  • OopsyDaisy3

    To interject President Trump into this discussion is off base.
    The children doing the bullying got it from their environment and
    and parents. And from out of hand television and movies depicting
    unforgivable acts and the glorification of same.
    As a parent of a son born with Down Syndrome, i know first hand.
    Insensitivity to others different than the bullys comes from fear
    of the unknown and ignorance.
    To Liam, hang in there young man, those of us who love and respect
    you far outnumber the ne’er do wells that will one day suffer their own
    fate from hate.
    Linda in Texas

    • Always Curious

      AMEN!

    • Always Curious

      The parents of the children who bullied my kids were bullies themselves. I taught my kids the Golden Rule and that people that put you down do so because they feel so bad about themselves they have to hurt other people to feel better themselves. It helped them understand but that did not stop the pain & suffering they felt. I worked in child welfare many years and I know where abuse comes from and it is not the President!

    • whirlaway

      You are so right it is as you and I have discussed a time of bad manners no rules and little sensitivity. This is everywhere in all classes from wealthy to poor don’t even get me started on domestic abuse, ( which is not always to women) elder abuse,child abuse and animal abuse . There are a travesty of abuses going are far too much.

      • OopsyDaisy3

        hi whirlaway. Thank you for your support and comments. My first recollection of children being mean and cruel to other children happened on the merry go round in the first grade. One of the children riding the merry go round was pushed off as it went around and they landed within the seating, being clobbered by feet and the merry go round itself. I tried
        to stop the merry go round but some kids kept it from being stopped. I screamed for the teacher and she finally came over to help the boy who
        had been purposely pushed off. I learned a big lesson that day and it has
        stayed with me about 71 years. The culprits were sent to the Principal’s
        Office and then sent home. Linda

        • whirlaway

          There have always been bullies but in past days it was not acceptable. Now for everything people do there is an excuse and a reason almost always caused by someone else. I am not good with excuses and whining. BTW I bet you have been a great Mom in your lifetime.

    • Always Curious

      OoopsyDaisy3, Linda in Texas, see my comment below to Curt-Muth about my disabled daughter’s abuse. She went from a school where she was well accepted as just one of the kids and we moved to another school and the bullying started. There were no visibly disabled children in the school except her, ignorance. These kids who bullied were treated like trash by their abusive parents and grew up to be the same way. I feel yah.

    • Ida Lee

      I’m with you 100% Linda….I was bullied as a school girl and as an adult when I started working….and I noticed it was always after I got special attention for something positive…it’s a good thing I was taught to defend myself and made friends with some bad asses who didn’t like to see their “little buddy” being hurt or abused ….

      • OopsyDaisy3

        Hi Ida Lee, Thanksgiving was rewarding to see old friends. Family is down to 1, my son in D.C. He had to stay as he is a singer and had services to do.
        Lost my special son when he was 37. But not before i spent 19 years of my life as Membership Chair starting a world wide organization dedicated to new parent’s of D S babies and children to give them a chance at life.
        We were told to deny our baby nourishment and roll him to the back of the nursery. Bullistic comes to mind when i was told. And my dad was on the board of the huge hospital that he was born in. He resigned in protest.
        I know that is personal but might give some who think i am a bit bold when i post, it is not just for horses. When i become interested in something, i.e. rescue of dogs, cats, horses, and people, not necessarily in that order, i become engulfed. I always tell people, i have 2 gears in any subject, full bore ahead or sound asleep. : )
        Have a wonderful Christmas Season. It has been in the 80’s here. Hope the Northeast gets some snow. The lights are so much prettier reflecting in the snow. Cheers to all wherever you are.
        Linda in Texas

    • lastromntribune

      your just to smart Linda…agreed

  • whirlaway

    Very sad too hear this story. Once again I worked in a public service venue my entire life and over the years I have seen the art of parenting decline. ( not by all parents) The way I see children talk to their parents in public without consequences is unbelievable. I also do not want to hear that lame excuse by parents that now you must worry your child will call the police on you when they say that parents simply do not want to do their job. That is not new I tried that
    In 1959 telling my mother I would call the police. Her response was ” get in the car I will take you their and if I go to jail you will go to foster care so pack a few things in case that happens. ” my sister and i knew who the boss was and we knew she meant it. MY Dad was a softie but he still backed her up. There are other issues involved that would take all day to discuss but parents better start being a parent right from the start or it will be like trying to suddenly lead train a yearling it will be much tougher as children grow older.

  • gus stewart

    Very nice thing for johhny v to do. Only wish our sport had the media coverage to help more on these situations. Sorry but when our nfl players kneeling at the anthem or harvey weinstein and our politician abuse their power thats more newsworthy right. If people today just understood by watching sports and paying extra for cable. Or watching certain shows with actors or people involved behind film who behave badly. Politicians who get media coverage because they only draw rating for cable shows. If people just thought about this and said no, im tuning this crap out because i dont want to empower bad behavior, that would be a start. Kids today have it really rough if other parents dont teach things like having a moral compass, but are more concerned about how a football team did on sunday. Hats off to johnny v.

  • Convene

    As someone who lived with bullying at home and at school, I can empathize with this child. It can teach you to have a thick skin – but it’s hell on the way and not every kid makes it. It took a lifetime to really put it all to rest and it was a hard, lonely ride.

    Where is it coming from? Think about it. Everywhere these day you see movies, ads, commercials, sports people (kids’ sports coaches need to rethink the messages they send; it is, after all, only a GAME played for FUN), TV shows, video games – everything, it seems – that send messages filled with agression, combative behavior/attitudes and anger. Shows and movies about warmth, love, tenderness, morality and doing the right thing are branded, “corny,” and people who like them are sniggered about. Kids with gentle hearts and interests too tender for combative sports get laughed at and bullied. If your son wants to be a painter or a dancer and your other one wants to play football, which one do you brag most about? So where is the bullying mentality coming from? Next time you hear some football or hockey player or fan yelling, “Get him! Kill him!” remember that this is one big part of the answer. Little things send messages our kids are hearing and absorbing. Advertising is designed to sell things; often it’s much more than just the product on the screen.

    The bullying mentality comes from US – families and society – and we support it in a thousand subtle little ways every day of our lives. Yes, we want our kids to grow up tough and resilient, but that takes time and they have to survive long enough to learn that these bullies are the real losers.

    Hats off to Johnny V! Hats off to everyone who supports him! And hats off too to every parent and teacher and neighbor who thinks what he or she is really showing to our kids. Show ’em how to shun the bullies and stand up for each other when they see bullying. And hats off to every parent who comes down hard when the bully lives in his or her own house.

    Hang in there Liam. I’m here to tell you that if you let it, it can get better. You’re already ‘way bigger than the bullies will ever be.

    • whirlaway

      I agree we do want to grow up tough and resilient but also as you said we need to display a caring sensitive side to others. That is not a sign of weakness, caring sensitive people to others are actually often people that are quietly making a difference in life and are pillars of strength.

      • Convene

        Exactly. The trick is to find the balance – and so often it’s found in the way we relate to others. Our children really do tend to model us. Working to to show those qualities to them can also help us to become better and more balanced ourselves.

        • whirlaway

          Balance is the key my parents were married 65 yrs when my Dad died, they were loving but in particular my Mother was very strict, my sister and I were never hit that was not a method my family belived in, but when we needed to be corrected after being disobedient or disrespectful things that mattered to us were removed for awhile. Both our parents would explain in detail what we said that was unacceptable
          and why. My Dad was my hero not some person I did not even know on TV and he was a big horse racing fan and we spent many great days at the races. My parents
          would encourage our passions in my case animals and did not expect us to like
          what they liked. Being a parent is a tough time consuming job and I have always been thankful the parents I had although sometimes in my teens I did not always feel that way. : – )

  • OopsyDaisy3

    Last thought. How about all the so called comedians who mock and bully every one they
    feel they can get a laugh from mentioning. It is a personality flaw. Plain and simple..Linda

    • whirlaway

      These late night show people are pathetic when I have caught clips from them suppose to
      be funny their lack of talent was amazing. Another group way overpaid for what they do. I have dogs that make me laugh far more with their antics then these light night bores.

    • whirlaway

      I do not find many stand up comedians that funny at all.

  • Doug Petersen

    The obsession with Donald Trump and the Clintons is truly bizarre. How many 12 year olds are rushing home to watch MSNBC or Fox News? I bet it’s the same amount of 13 yr. olds that sit in the back of class so they can pull out their phones as to not miss an alert by HuffPost or Breitbart.
    We live in a culture that celebrates ultra violent video games and movies, horrific rap music lyrics, the breakdown of the nuclear family, and the mockery of those who prefer “traditional values”. As a betting man I would wager with anyone who wants to bet that adolescent bullies come from outside this spectrum of American culture. Any takers?

  • Help a jock

    Liam, you are a better and stronger person than these bullies! Doesn’t always feel this way, but eventually you know how strong you are.

    Johnny V, great to see you and the jockeys step up. Bravo.

    Though there is an individual that jockeys have failed miserably. It is one of your own, Gwen Jocson. She is suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The CTE is no doubt a result of the numerous head injuries and concussions she incurred from riding.

    Natalie Voss wrote two outstanding articles about Gwen, the first an Eclipse award article concerning Gwen’s battle with CTE. The second article was about the failure of jockeys and the PDJF to support one of their own.

    The CTE is torturing Gwen and she is dying slow and painfully death. The jockeys do not have to wear any patches nor raise any money for her, just support her with the PDJF. She supported this industry with her life.

    • Noelle

      How can I help? Website please?

  • Noelle

    I’m a girl. Not some sort of nut. I’m just tall – (as if being tall meant I was some sort of freak). I was 6ft. tall when I graduated from high school – not my choice. I assure you.

    I was bullied from kindergarten through high school graduation, every day, because of my height. I’ve learned to live with it. Comments?

    • Fred and Joan Booth

      I am a male and am only 4`10″ tall. Until i reached the age of 40 or so I was constantly picked on and beat up as well as pulled over by police thinking I was too young to be driving a company truck. Remember when the owner of the newspaper I worked for yelled at the city cop that I was the carrier of the year for the company and that he was NEVER to be contacted about my driving the company truck delivering his papers to stores,newsstands again.Our boss always awakened at 3:30 am to begin work on the next edition.Even as a rider at the track their was discrimination as I come from a non`racing industry family. My family line comes from a long tradition of plumbers in New Jersey! Like you, you get used to it and have to stay away from dangerous situations and be aware at all times.Now I am involved with a small thoroughbred farm that has one at Del Mar as well as all over the southwestern area. Like one of our customers said to me last year from South Dakota, ” he prefers the company of horses as they are non`judgemental” He was a Dakota tribal member who came all the way out to the NW to buy our horse! He is to pickup another yearling this coming spring.Wish he lived closer to us as he was a good horseman.

      • Noelle

        Thanks for your reply and esp. for your story. Amazing – each of us – individually –
        has a story, and (in your case) a remarkably interesting story at that.

  • Very cool!

  • Mark

    Johnny you have always been a class act, I pray that Liam makes a full recover from this horrific ordeal. I pray that he and his family find peace so they can put this behind them. Bullying has been around for a very long time, iam sure we all have these stories. Johnny I ask you and your family to put faith in God and he will get y’all through this. Hang in there and y’all have my prayers.

  • lastromntribune

    some parents are absolute FAILURES at raising there kids and instilling decency in them…kids will be kids but they also learn from there parents . and bully’s are usually scared shitless themselves that’s why they deflect onto others….nonsense like this should be nipped in the bud. always told my child win or lose punch the bully in the nose…let them know there will be a price had.

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