Chuck Costanzo was standing in the racing office the other morning and flagged down a passing acquaintance.
“This kid is a fantastic talent, the next Mike Smith,” Costanzo said, expressionless.
The fellow in question was Denny Velasquez, an Oklahoman who will ride his first race on Friday’s season-opening card in Shakopee.
Velasquez stuck out his hand following the glowing introduction and grinned sheepishly. “Denny Velasquez, Jorge’s my cousin,” Costanzo’s bug boy said with a chuckle.
Not bad for a kid who cut his teeth working horses for his dad, Eddie, at Remington Park, has yet to ride a race and turned 16 only last month. Confidence is not an issue.
It is the job of an agent such as Costanzo to sell his rider to as many prospects as possible, and Costanzo has started the process with a flourish.
Young Mr. Velasquez, who worked horses as an under-age gallop boy the past couple of years, has four mounts on opening night.
He will start the evening on Chasm in the first race, take a breather and ride Musical Shine in the third, Cashanova in the fourth and wind up his racing debut on Waubun in the seventh.
Costanzo agreed to take Velasquez under his wing, and the two met for the first time two weeks ago when the young rider arrived in Shakopee. Velasquez worked horses for the next several days with Costanzo observing the gallops. On Monday, he got his jock’s license.
“This kid is the best raw talent I’ve seen on a horse since I’ve been around,” Costanzo said. “He has a lot of polishing to be done, but as far as natural ability he’s way beyond his years. I’m really high on this kid.
Velasquez is from the small community of Jones, Okla.
“It’s a little bit of a town about 15 miles east of Oklahoma City,” Velasquez said.
He began hanging around his father’s barn about six years ago and began climbing on horses not long after. He has two older brothers, Bryan and Eddie, Jr., but neither races.
“I made this decision on my own,” Velasquez said, pointing out that his father never influenced him one way or the other.
Denny was a sophomore at Jones High School with Chris Biehler, whose father is trainer Mike Biehler. Denny and his brother Bryan galloped horses for the Biehler barn last winter, and Denny began expressing his desire to become a jockey.
“I think he’ll be a good rider,” said Biehler, who plans to put Velasquez on a few mounts. “He has good balance, he’s a very quick learner and he really, really wants to ride.”
Velasquez ran the 800 and the mile for three years on the school track team, and says he will benefit in his new sport from the strong legs he developed as a runner.
In the meantime, while he rides horses for a living, he will continue working toward a GED with online classes. Maybe there will be room at some point for a class in culinary arts as well.
“I like to cook,”’ Velasquez said. “I watch the foot network channel every day.”
His specialty? “I don’t really have one, but I can bake salmon,” he said.
He keeps it basic. “I use a little dill. That’s it,” he said.
It was suggested that salmon is an ideal food for maintaining weight. “I don’t have a problem with that,” said the 5-foot-5 Velasquez, who tacks 108 pounds.
Velasquez has set no specific goals for himself. He’s simply eager to ride.
And confident, too.
Does he expect to fight a few butterflies on Friday night?
“Probably not,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
BABIES ON PARADE
The Minnesota Thoroughbred Association will sponsor the Upper Midwest Two Year Olds and Unraced Thoroughbreds in Training Sale this weekend.
There are 16 horses consigned, after three withdrew, and they will be under tack with timed works starting at noon Friday over the Canterbury track.
The horses are also available for viewing in the receiving barn until the sale starts Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Further information is available by calling the MTA at 952-233 4802.