08/26/2011 3:57PM

Del Mar: Valdivia returning to Southern California full-time

Barbara D. Livingston
Jose Valdivia Jr. hoists the Belmont Stakes trophy after winning with Ruler On Ice.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Jockey Jose Valdivia, Jr., best known for winning the Belmont Stakes in June on Ruler On Ice, is returning to Southern California on a full-time basis next week after a 16-month absence, he said on Friday.

Valdivia, who has a home in Southern California with his wife and two children, said he plans to ride at Del Mar beginning Friday. He will ride at the Los Angeles County Fair meeting in Pomona in September, with an occasional trip to the East Coast that month for stakes.

Valdivia, 36, has ridden at Monmouth Park for the last two summers, having spent last winter at Aqueduct. He rode frequently at Delaware Park in 2010.

Valdivia said a leading factor in the decision is the reduction of travel on a regular basis. In Southern California, jockeys can be based in Los Angeles and ride nearly year-round at Hollywood Park, Fairplex Park, and Santa Anita, with one seven-week journey to Del Mar each summer. “That’s like a vacation, with the families going down there,” Valdivia said.

“I’ve been back here for a year and a half,” he said from Monmouth Park on Friday. “There is a lot of travel involved. Monmouth is three days a week. You might go to Delaware one day, and another day at Saratoga or Philadelphia Park. There is a lot of commuting. That’s something that guys at the Southern California tracks take for granted, and that plays a lot into it.”

Valdivia said his return to California was predicted by his famous uncle, the retired jockey Fernando Toro. “My uncle always said when I left, ‘You will always feel like you are camping out when you leave California,’ ” Valdivia said. “California is home, that’s the main thing.”

Through Thursday, Valdivia has won 41 races this year with mounts who have earned $2,676,143. Ruler On Ice is by far his biggest win, and first in a Triple Crown race.

“I’m grateful for the time I spent back here,” he said.

When riding in California previously, Valdivia won the 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup on Rail Trip and was the regular rider of Big Jag, the winner of eight stakes in 1998-99. He also was the regular rider of Val Royal, whom he rode to a win in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park.

Torre gets a look

Between the logistics of his job working for Major League Baseball, and family obligations, former manager Joe Torre has yet to see Game On Dude, a horse in which he is a co-owner, run in a race this year.

But work melded with pleasure on Friday morning. Torre, now the executive vice president for baseball operations at MLB, had to be in San Diego later Friday for a meeting with the umpires supervisors, so, accompanied by co-owner Bernie Schiappa, he stopped by the barn of trainer Bob Baffert to look in on Game On Dude, then watched the horse have a routine gallop in preparation for the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday.

Torre won’t see the race in person, though. He is heading to New York for his wife’s birthday.

“My wife, my sister, my granddaughter, and my stepdaughter all have a birthday on Sunday,” he said.

Torre was accommodating with Baffert’s stable help, many of whom took pictures with Torre.

He and Schiappa met several years ago, at a golf tournament in Hawaii sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, for whom Schiappa was partner in several dealerships.

“When he mentioned the horses, we hit it off,” Torre said.

They are partners in Game On Dude with Ernie Moody’s Mercedes Stable, and the estate of Terry Lanni, who died earlier this year. Game On Dude was bought privately in Florida after his second start in February 2010. His biggest win came in the Santa Anita Handicap in March, and he just missed in last month’s Hollywood Gold Cup.

As for the Pacific Classic, “I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Schiappa admitted.

“I’ve been nervous for two weeks,” he said. “He’s been sitting on go for so long.”

– additional reporting by Jay Privman