04/17/2003 12:00AM

Don't forget about this Valenzuela


ARCADIA, Calif. - First, an old snapshot, taken nearly 15 years ago on the afternoon of Nov. 20, 1988, at Hollywood Park.

There were nine races run that day, and all but two of them were won by someone named Valenzuela. The fact that Patrick won four should come as no surprise, especially to anyone witnessing his most recent incarnation at the top of the Southern California jockey standings.

On the other hand, the three winners brought home that afternoon by Fernando Valenzuela are more difficult to compute. The name tends to ring a bell as a young rider brimming with talent and promise. A check of the clip file confirmed those suspicions.

At the time, Fernando Valenzuela was just 19. He was on his way to leading all apprentices at the Del Mar, Oak Tree, Hollywood fall, and the winter-spring Santa Anita meets. And he just happened to share the same name as the most popular Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher since the days of Sandy Koufax, 1981 Cy Young Award winner and Rookie of the Year Fernando Valenzuela.

Best of all, the kid could really ride. Mature beyond his years, he sat chilly and knew how to wait. He impressed Charlie Whittingham, who used Fernando because, as the late Hall of Famer put it, "he sits a horse nice - really gets them to relax." Praise doesn't get any higher.

The young jockey reaped the rewards of his own, hard-earned "Fernandomania." Not even a fractured wrist that interrupted his apprentice year could slow him down. He came back to win five races in a day at the 1988 Oak Tree meet.

So what happened? Reality, mostly. The natural decline of business after losing the bug. A brief bout with drugs that scared him straight for life. A couple of untimely injuries and . . . poof! The next thing anyone knew, Fernando was on the road - have tack will travel - trying to find a place where his ability and opportunity could find a happy match.

He tried Chicago and did well. For two years he rode in Saudi Arabia, under contract to a prince. In early September of 2001 he was offered another season in the Middle East. Then came September 11, and Valenzuela respectfully declined the offer. He just didn't think it was a good idea at the time.

As a reward for his prudence, he fractured his left forearm at Santa Anita March 2, 2002. The break was sustained just above a stainless steel plate that was already attached to the bone, a souvenir from a fall in 1997. He was down again, but it was a mistake to count him out.

Now, fast forward to last Sunday, in the fourth race at Santa Anita Park, with the field reduced to three by scratches, two of them ridden by someone named Valenzuela. At the end of the six furlongs, after a year on the sidelines and 15 mounts into a comeback, it was Fernando first, Patrick second. Victory doesn't get much sweeter.

"I'm not going to be impatient," Valenzuela said early this week from his Arcadia home. "I know it will take time to build up my business. Look at Pat, when he came back a year ago. It took him a little while to get going."

Fernando Valenzuela, who turns 34 in June, is by nature a serene individual who meditates daily. He descends from a Cantonese grandfather, Mariano Hamm, who migrated to Tijuana and opened a string of Chinese restaurants in the Mexican border town. Fernando was born on the other side of the border in San Diego.

He spent a lot of his most recent recovery making up for lost time with his wife, Monica. They traveled to places like Miami Beach, Cabo San Lucas, and Mazatlan, playing tourist and loving it.

"I took a little extra time coming back because I wanted to make sure my arm was completely healed, and I had my weight under control," Valenzuela said.

"I'd been dieting since I was 17," he went on. "I was kind of curious to find out what my natural weight really was, so I just ate like a regular person and got up to about 140 pounds. I also wanted to make sure my arm was getting all the nutrients it needed to fill in the holes in the bone after the plate was removed. When you diet heavily, you don't always get what you need."

What he needs now is action. Valenzuela is back to his riding weight, with the help of a strict diet, exercise, and the sweat box. The more he rides, he figures, the easier it will be to control his weight, and it appears that his business is coming around. Friday he was named on four horses, including runners for Vladimir Cerin and Jeff Mullins.

"When you know you are good, that never changes," Valenzuela said. "And I know I'm good at what I do.

"Anyway, I'm not sure there is anything else I can do - unless it's driving a tour boat at a resort in Cabo," Valenzuela said with a laugh. "But that doesn't really matter, because this is what I want to do. And I'm still young. I've got a lot of very good years left."