08/16/2012 12:24PM

Del Mar: Valenzuela finds perfect partner in Acclamation

Shigeki Kikkawa
Pat Valenzuela celebrates his victory aboard Acclamation in the Eddie Read. Both of his stakes wins this year have come with Acclamation.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Patrick Valenzuela sat at a table in the kitchen adjacent to the jockeys’ room at Del Mar, his work for the day, such as it is these days, complete. He had ridden one horse. It won. He was eating an orange, cut neatly into quarters, onto which Valenzuela had deposited healthy dollops of Tabasco sauce, and when he bit into one of the slices, the sweat started to bead atop his bald head, so he sucked on a lime wedge to take out the sting.

Suddenly, Valenzuela leaped up. “Wait right here,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

He came back with his iPhone and scrolled through photos until he found an image he had of Acclamation. It looked similar to a shot of Acclamation coming to the wire in last month’s Eddie Read Stakes here, only fuzzier, not quite as defined as a photo.

“It’s a painting,” he said, and while it won’t knock the Mona Lisa off its perch in the Louvre, it really was quite good. “It’s not done. I don’t want to show it to anyone yet. But that’s how much I love this horse. He means so much to me. He’s a really cool horse. I don’t think I’ve been this close to a horse in my life. He’s a super horse.”

Acclamation has won seven straight races, the last four with Valenzuela, a partnership that began in last year’s Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic. They were scheduled to defend that title here Aug. 26 before the news Wednesday that Acclamation probably would miss the race with inflammation below an ankle.

The injury was not thought to be serious, but Buddy Johnston, the breeder and co-owner of Acclamation, said he would take a cautious approach with Acclamation’s campaign.

Acclamation went to the sidelines late last year with a minor injury before returning in June for a 2012 campaign. Valenzuela returned to action in April, five months after announcing his retirement.

“He came back out of retirement just for this horse, I believe,” Johnston said. “He really does love that horse.”

But while Acclamation, last year’s Eclipse Award winner as champion older horse, is in the conversation for Horse of the Year, Valenzuela finds himself riding sparingly in the twilight of his career, just two months shy of turning 50. There are days he does not have any mounts in the afternoon. Occasionally, he’ll ride two. Most often, though, he’s like a vitamin, one a day. Entering Wednesday’s races, he had ridden just 64 races this year, with six wins.

Valenzuela is willing to do more. But his body often betrays him.

“Mentally, I feel great,” he said. “I wish my body would go along.”

There are days Valenzuela comes into the paddock looking like Kirk Gibson heading to the batter’s box in the 1988 World Series. But when Valenzuela gets put on the back of a horse, like Gibson swinging that bat against Dennis Eckersley, he is transformed. You won’t believe what you just saw.

“He’s one of the best riders who ever lived,” Johnston said.

“He’s a freak,” said trainer Eoin Harty, for whom Valenzuela rode the 10-year-old gelding Porfido to victory last weekend.

“A couple of days ago, I was thinking, of the time I’ve been in the States,” said Harty, a native of Ireland, “I’d put Patrick, Gary Stevens, Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero, Eddie Delahoussaye, and now Rafael Bejarano as guys who have just unbelievable natural talent.

“He’s riding against guys half his age,” Harty said. “He’s only got a handful of mounts. But when he comes to the paddock, he has that fire. He still wants it. He’s one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen. Most riders, if they have just a few opportunities, their timing is off. He can be off a month, and he’ll come right back and win a Group 1. He’s just got God-given talent.”

Trouble was, Valenzuela for much of his career has taken that talent for granted and went down more rocky roads and dead ends than an ice-road trucker. He’s still impulsive but appears to be channeling those impulses into healthier pursuits, with Acclamation providing the creative spark.

Take the painting. As Valenzuela tells it, he had never before picked up a paintbrush until a few weeks ago, just days after the Eddie Read, when he was picking up his dry cleaning in nearby Solana Beach and noticed an adjacent art store.

“I thought, ‘I want to paint a picture of Acclamation,’ ” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve done it. I’m into it. Now I want to take classes. It’s really interesting to me. It takes a lot of the stress out.”

He didn’t stop there. Valenzuela wrote a rap song about Acclamation. He found the backbeat on his iPhone and started singing the lyrics: “Acclamation, the brand new sensation, worldwide in every nation.”

“We’re two old warriors,” Valenzuela said. “He knows how to win. And I know how to win.”

Valenzuela recalls the victory in last year’s Pacific Classic with detailed clarity.

“Coming by the stands the first time, he was pretty relaxed, but Game On Dude was right with us, and I thought we were going to set it up for Twirling Candy,” Valenzuela said.

“I knew I had Game On Dude measured at the quarter pole, but I could hear Joel,” Valenzuela said, referring to Joel Rosario, aboard Twirling Candy, “and I thought I was beat.”

Now Valenzuela is getting more animated in telling the story: “But I threw a new cross, and Acclamation took off, that son of a buck! He stuck his neck out and fought. I wish you could feel what I felt. I was on a fighting machine.”

In three subsequent races, all wins, Valenzuela said he has had the same approach − let Acclamation find a comfortable rhythm early and rely on his finishing kick.

“I never grab a hold the first part,” he said. “I let him come out running, and then he’ll put his ears up. He’s so smart. He sets the pace the way he wants. When someone comes up, he’ll go on, but he’ll save his best kick for the end. They better have their running shoes on, because he’ll always kick.”

Valenzuela is well aware of the passage of time. He pointed out the other day that he’s been around so long, he remembers riding when Johnston’s father, Ellwood B. Johnston, was running the family’s farm, Old English Rancho. Ellwood Johnston died in 1981, three years after Valenzuela’s career began at age 16.

“Pie Man Johnston,” Valenzuela said, referring to Johnston by his better-known nickname. “I remember seeing him at the races. It’s great to see the Johnstons have a horse like this.”

There are many fans who apparently feel the same way about Valenzuela. He is still mobbed after races, with children beseeching him for his goggles or an autograph. He is frequently stopped by fathers, who remember his glory days and have him pose with their children.

Valenzuela is engaging. Always has been. “What’s your name?” he’ll ask the kids while their father fusses with the camera. Valenzuela would like to get his picture taken a little more in the winner’s circle but understands his current lot.

“I feel good,” he said. “I’m upbeat. I love riding. I want to do more. I still think I can make a difference. But I’m thankful I’m here, I’m thankful for what I get, and I’m thankful for Acclamation.”