10/09/2008 11:00PM

All not perfect despite recent milestones


ARCADIA, Calif. - On Sept. 28 at Belmont Park, John Velazquez recorded win No. 4,000 of his exemplary career by riding the 9-year-old Rogue Agent to a six-length victory over a muddy racetrack. His reward? Five days later Velazquez was in a Lexington hospital after a crash at Keeneland that afternoon.

On Oct. 9, at Louisiana Downs, Patrick Valenzuela reached the 4,000-win mark aboard the 5-year-old mare Burst of Light in the second race of the day. His reward? He gets to stay in Louisiana.

Both riders deserve a nod for hitting the 4,000 level. The American Racing Manual indicates that only 52 other jockeys in the history of the sport have attained such statistical heights. The next rung gets a little tougher, though. Only 23 jockeys, most recently Kent Desormeaux, have won 5,000 or more.

The good news - at least from a worst-case scenario standpoint - is that Velazquez suffered nothing more than a stout concussion and will be back in plenty of time to be a factor at the looming Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park. A few more concussions, though, and the band will be playing a different tune.

The other news, regarding Valenzuela, is that he is for the foreseeable future destined to compete only in Louisiana, where his license status is in good standing despite an unequivocal ruling that bars him from ever competing in California again.

By the generous standards pervasive in racing, not to mention professional sports in general, the California ruling on Valenzuela was refreshingly harsh. At long last, it was determined that an individual does not necessarily have the right to participate in the game's most dangerous arena, just because he or she wants to. In accepting the proposed decision of administrative law judge Daniel Juarez, the commissioners of the California Horse Racing Board acted merely to uphold the integrity of the process under which Valenzuela had been allowed to compete since 2002.

When Valenzuela was arrested and booked for driving under the influence of alcohol, a few days before Christmas of 2007, he tripped the switch on a pretty straightforward clause in the contract of his conditional jockey's license. As Juarez pointed out in his findings, Valenzuela had signed off each year on the terms that he had to "abstain from the consumption and/or possession of any alcohol and any controlled substances." Otherwise, his license would be "subject to immediate termination," and he would be "permanently ineligible to reapply for, or to hold, a license issued by the CHRB."

Valenzuela's attorney, Neil Papiano, contended that the penalty of a lifetime ban was "extreme and unreasonable." He argued that the racing board could not prohibit Valenzuela from doing something perfectly legal, like having a drink, and even if they could, they only had jurisdiction to impose such a restriction "on race day, near a racetrack, or before he intended to race."

Papiano and Valenzuela employed similar tactics during the summer of 2004 when they challenged the inexact wording in a conditional license contract that had to do with drug testing of hair samples pulled from hair follicles. Valenzuela had shaved - everywhere - so there was no hair to test. This time, however, the contract terminology was ironclad, including an available hair clause. And Valenzuela signed it, along with his attorney.

It was kind of law judge Juarez to give Valenzuela the benefit of the doubt that he had not consumed any alcohol or controlled substance since his series of conditional contracts began. After all, Valenzuela did not test positive at any time during that period.

Still, Valenzuela's earlier history of positive tests, unexplained absences, and evasions certainly warranted the CHRB's extra-precautionary license agreement. Valenzuela was willing to sign, thereby agreeing to accept the consequences. After admitting to drinking at a family gathering last December, he blew two tires running over a curb at a fast-food stop, then clocked a 0.12 blood alcohol when officers became involved. That can be called possession of alcohol, without much argument.

Valenzuela is riding in Louisiana because he had a license good until the end of the most recent fiscal year, June 30, 2008. At the time, his appeal in California was under way, and he was granted a renewal of his Louisiana license, which will expire on June 30, 2009.

"How this commission will take Pat Valenzuela's situation under consideration at that point, I do not know," said Charles Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission. "I do know that he is under a lot of strict conditions here in Louisiana, over and above the average licensee with no problems."

About the worst thing John Velazquez has ever done is choke up a little during his acceptance speech after being presented with his first Eclipse Award. At 36, he is at the peak of his prowess, taking full advantage of his considerable experience and the class with which he does business. Luck willing, he will join that 5,000-win club someday.

Valenzuela, now 45, has been nothing less than racing's Pete Rose, with a rap sheet to match his remarkable stats. With no national licensing rules in place, it remains to be seen how officials in other racing states respond to Valenzuela's inevitable attempts to take his show on the road.