The Kentucky Derby Diaries: The Johnny Vela Story


The Kentucky Derby Diaries are a collection of stories OWR will be telling up till the Kentucky Derby on May 2nd. Have any good stories? Post them in the comments or send them to us at

I was almost 30 years old when I went to my first race track (2005). I popped my cherry at Belmont Park. It was a Saturday in July. I remember arriving (by train) and seeing how massive and beautiful it looked from the outside, the old brick, the vines.  The vast lawn surrounding the exterior. It had rained the night before, so everything green was glistening. I could see this is really a great place to watch horse racing. We arrived in time for the first race. I was surprised by the lack of people. There were maybe 200 people total, clearly it wasn’t Belmont Stakes weekend. As the races went on, more came in, still the crowd was sparse to say the least.

I believe it was race 5 and we (myself and three others) had just placed our bets and went down to the starting gate to watch the race. Again, there was no one there, well, except for one guy, a grizzled veteran just staring at the track. He had his program rolled up and was holding it in his left hand. In his right hand he was smoking a cigar. He looked over his shoulder and noticed me watching him. This was his cue. Slowly he sauntered over and there was no way of avoiding him. For some reason I was intimidated, I guess because this was clearly his place, where he spent his life, and I was just a tourist for the day. He got close, about a foot away. I could see his teeth were stained a dark yellow when he told me “Johnny Vela likes the mud.” I knew very little about horse racing, but what I did realize was that I had just received my first horse racing tip. He whacked his program against his thigh and went back to his post. That was it.

Quickly I scanned my un-creased program and looked for someone named Vela. It took a while, but I found the jockey, John Velazquez and the horse he was riding. I quickly went up and place a bet to win. As you have probably guessed by now, Velazquez won the race and the tip paid out. The strangest thing was that when I went to look for the tipster, he was gone. Only a stumped out cigar remained.

I learned two things that day, first, always bet Johnny Vela (great tip for any major race like The Kentucky Derby) and the proper way to hold a program is rolled up, in your left hand

Check out more on the Kentucky Derby and more at OWR!


About Pulp Scribbler

The Writing of David S. Grant View all posts by Pulp Scribbler

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