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Jockey John Velazquez celebrates winning the 150th Travers Stakes aboard Code of Honor last Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

In 2011, Joe Dietrick made his annual trip to Saratoga Race Course from his home in northeast Pennsylvania. He’s come here for decades, and when he was younger, he’d park his mobile home in Saratoga for the whole meet.

On that day in 2011, Dietrick was with his son Jon and two grandsons. John Velazquez had won the Kentucky Derby that year on Animal Kingdom, and Dietrick, a long-time admirer of the jockey, wanted to make sure that his grandsons met him.

So they settled along the rail on the path that jockeys take to the paddock, and when Velazquez walked by, Dietrick called his name.

“What I’ve always enjoyed about going to Saratoga is that the jockeys stop and talk with you,” said Dietrick this week. “And I’ve always been a fan of Johnny V. He’s so classy in addition to being one of the great riders.”

Velazquez posed for a picture with Dietrick’s grandsons, who were in their early teens, and agreed to sign their programs.

“I introduced him to my grandsons, because they didn’t know how important he is to the sport,” Dietrick said, “and I told them that he was from Carolina, Puerto Rico, and then I said, ‘Carolina is also the home of the great Roberto Clemente.’”

Velazquez looked up from the programs he was signing.

“That’s right,” he said.

Clemente, of course, is the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 years, and in 1972, he died in a plane crash while bringing relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

“Roberto was always a hero of mine, not only because of his status in the sport,” Dietrick said, “but because of who he was and how he died. He was killed the year my youngest son was born, and we named him Robert in Clemente’s honor.”

On that day in 2011, Velazquez asked Dietrick and his family to come back to the jockeys’ room, because he wanted to show them something. It was the number 21, Clemente’s number, on the back of his riding helmet. The jockey must have gone through dozens of helmets since then, and still, he wears #21.

Last week, Joe’s son Jon was back at Saratoga for the Travers, and he remembered that day in 2011. He is admittedly not much of a handicapper and said that his primary betting strategy is to bet on Velazquez, and that was his plan last Saturday.

It worked out pretty good.

Velazquez won three races on the biggest day of Saratoga’s meet: the Grade 1 Allen Jerkens on Mind Control; the Grade 2 Ballston Spa on Significant Form; and the Grade 1 Travers on Code of Honor. He also had a second and a third.

A week earlier, he had three wins at Del Mar, including the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks on Cambier Parc.

Like Clemente, Velazquez is a Hall of Fame inductee. And like Clemente, as impressive as his career is, Velazquez is known as much for what he does off the track as for what he does on it. He is on the board of directors of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund. He is co-chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild board of directors. He is a tireless advocate for his fellow riders and a steadfast presence at fundraisers for a variety of causes. He has played basketball for the Racetrack Chaplaincy, he has spotted bids for the Belmont Child Care Association, he has tended bar for the PDJF.

“If horse racing were baseball, this guy would be Derek Jeter,” said Joe Dietrick. “That’s how important he is to the sport.”

Though #21 is not officially retired by Major League Baseball—the only number to receive that honor is #42, Jackie Robinson’s—many Latin American players choose not to wear it in order to honor Clemente’s legacy, and there is growing support to retire it permanently.

But even if that happens, you’ll still find it on the helmet of John Velazquez, which may tell you more about the man who won this year’s Travers than anything he does in the saddle.

Teresa Genaro is a freelance writer enjoying another summer at Saratoga Race Course and contributing to The Pink Sheet.

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