05/18/2004 11:00PM

Does this ruling add up?


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Pat Valenzuela testified Tuesday at Hollywood Park that he violated his drug-testing agreement with the California Horse Racing Board because he was "depressed" and "in a dark place" as a result of a combination of factors that included a marriage "going south on me" and the side effects of a prescribed medication "taking its toll."

Under sworn oath, Valenzuela testified that on Jan. 22, outside his Arcadia home, he stepped on a ball and twisted his ankle. After that he called the stewards at Santa Anita, requested to be excused from his mounts, promised to appear for a mandatory drug test, made an appointment with a medical doctor to examine his ankle the following day, spoke with his estranged wife, Valerie, on the telephone, then fell into a protracted state of depression, during which he ignored ringing telephones and doorbells for several days. On Jan. 23, the stewards suspended his license.

"It was something I never experienced before in my life, and I never want to experience it again," Valenzuela said.

His marriage, Valenzuela testified, began to "disintegrate" last August, a situation that prompted him to seek psychiatric counseling in December. Not long after that, he discovered that "some money had been taken out of my accounts that I could not find. I didn't know where it went, and unfortunately I still don't know where it's at." He blamed his wife.

According to Valenzuela's testimony, the psychiatrist, Dr. Pamela Jones of Del Mar, prescribed Topamax to stabilize Valenzuela's mood swings and Ambien for his insomnia. Topamax is FDA approved as an anticonvulsant, with peripheral uses for mood disorders and the treatment of migraines. Its side effects can include fatigue, confusion, kidney stones, and weight loss.

Under cross examination from the deputy attorney general representing the board of stewards, Valenzuela acknowledged that he did not report he was taking Topamax to racing board investigators - who monitor Valenzuela's drug-testing agreement - nor did he tell them he was seeing a psychiatrist, "because I didn't think at that time it was important."

According to Valenzuela, once he emerged from his crippling depression, he was steered by friends to a medical doctor and a psychotherapist who recommended Valenzuela stop taking the prescribed medications. After two visits to the psychotherapist, Dr. Larry Lewis of South Pasadena, on Feb. 4 and Feb. 5, Valenzuela contacted the Santa Anita stewards Feb. 8, 17 days after failing to appear for his mandatory drug test.

Valenzuela requested and was granted an informal meeting with the stewards Feb. 11, at which time, according to his testimony, he said he fully expected his jockey's license would be reinstated once the stewards understood the "extenuating circumstances."

"We bent over backwards for Patrick," said senior steward Pete Pedersen on Tuesday. "We urged him to get reports from the doctors involved. We tried to accommodate him as much as possible, whatever he asked for in the way of a hearing."

On March 11, one month after the informal meeting, the stewards received brief letters from each of three doctors confirming their involvement in the case. On March 28, a formal hearing was convened, at which Valenzuela appeared without an attorney and tried to argue that there was a loophole in his drug-testing contract that allowed him to miss a mandatory drug test while in the process of seeking medical help.

On April 2, the stewards ruled that the suspension of Valenzuela's license would remain in effect through the end of 2004, and that he would be eligible to reapply for a license on Jan. 1, 2005.

At this point, opinions dramatically diverged. The punishment was either Draconian, excessive, and in no way fit the crime. Or, the stewards were acting with unusual bravery, taking into consideration not only the integrity of the sport and the enforcement of its rules, but also the severity of Valenzuela's mental illness, as characterized by Valenzuela himself.

On Tuesday, however, the seven-member racing board decided to mitigate the stewards' penalty, reducing Valenzuela's suspension to three months of time-served (some of it self-imposed by Valenzuela), plus one month.

"The knock might be that racing will be perceived as soft on drugs," said CHRB chairman John Harris, "because you found this guy didn't come in for a test, suspended him four months, and that was not enough, even though that does represent a lot of money. It's pretty severe."

No matter how the ruling is perceived, it should be noted for posterity that the commissioners changed the stewards' ruling despite the fact that:

* No steward was called upon to explain the thinking behind their ruling of April 2.

* No corroborating medical evidence was presented that confirmed Valenzuela did, in fact, sprain his ankle Jan. 22.

* No expert testimony was presented as to the possible linkage of the medication Topamax with Valenzuela's alleged depressive episode of Jan. 22.

* No verification was offered that Valenzuela adhered to the Topamax dosage regimen prescribed by Dr. Jones.

* No evidence was introduced that Valerie Valenzuela absconded with funds from the Valenzuela bank accounts.

* And no proof was offered confirming Valenzuela's repeated assertions - responding to questions from his own attorney - that he used no illegal drugs during the period of time he was absent from racing board purview.