Updated on 09/17/2011 10:46AM

East or West? Choosy jockeys have lots of concerns to weigh

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Benoit & Associates
Patrick Valenzuela committed last fall to ride Continental Red in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park.

ARCADIA, Calif. - In the last few weeks, Patrick Valenzuela has arguably been the least preoccupied jockey at Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park.

While other riders and their agents have been uncertain which venue offers the best chances for a winner in the inaugural Sunshine Millions program on Saturday, there have been no such painstaking decisions for Valenzuela.

He and his agent, Nick Cosato, committed last fall to ride Continental Red in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream after Continental Red made a successful transition from turf to dirt, finishing a game second in the California Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

"Continental Red ran a big race on the dirt and we committed to him," Valenzuela said. "I think this is a good opportunity to see how good he is. I let Nick make the decision on where we were going to ride, but I let him know how I felt."

The Sunshine Millions has become a handicapping test for jockeys and their agents. With four races matching California-breds and Florida-breds at each track and purses ranging from $250,000 to $1 million, the Sunshine Millions will be one of the richest days on the North American racing calendar and a prime reason to hop on a plane.

Valenzuela will be joined at Gulfstream by Santa Anita colleague Jose Valdivia Jr. Florida-based jockeys Jerry Bailey and M.R. Cruz are traveling to Santa Anita, although the presence of Sightseek in the Santa Monica on Saturday almost certainly had as much to do with Bailey's decision to travel. In an added twist, New York-based Richard Migliore is traveling to California to ride Svea Dahl, a California-bred mare who was a stakes winner in New York last year.

For some riders, the decision to travel was based on riding a leading candidate. For others, there were too many promising mounts at their home track to risk a travel day and the possibility of missing out on a winner who could develop into a star.

Laffit Pincay Jr. and Kent Desormeaux each intended to travel to Gulfstream for the $1 million Classic but instead will stay in California after Calkins Road and Hot Market were declared from the race because of injury.

As a consolation, each will have rides in all four Santa Anita Sunshine Millions races, including the $750,000 Distaff and $500,000 Turf, as well as a full complement of rides in overnight races.

"There's a lot of business we can't afford to miss," said Bob Meldahl, who books mounts for Pincay.

Top Florida-based jockeys such as Jorge Chavez, Pat Day, and Edgar Prado are staying at Gulfstream.

Valenzuela decided to travel to Gulfstream even though he is the leading rider at Santa Anita. In addition to Continental Red in the Classic, Valenzuela will ride in the other three Sunshine Millions races at Gulfstream - on Maliziosa in the $350,000 Filly and Mare Turf, Excessivepleasure in the $250,000 Dash, and Madame Pietra in the $250,000 Filly and Mare Sprint.

His best chance is Continental Red, who is considered California's leading hope in the Classic.

"With Hot Market going out, Calkins Road going out, for $1 million, how can I up pass it up?" said Cosato, Valenzuela's agent. "I don't think any of our mounts will be worse than the second or third choice."

For Bailey and his agent, Ron Anderson, gaining mounts in the four Sunshine Millions races at Santa Anita was a bonus for traveling to ride Sightseek, trained by Bobby Frankel, in the $200,000 Santa Monica Handicap. The Santa Monica is the first Grade 1 race of the year and will be run after the Sunshine Millions races have been concluded.

Bailey has been aboard Sightseek in all five of her career starts, including two graded stakes wins last fall.

"I had many options here and there," Anderson said from Florida. "The thing that kind of swayed was Sightseek for Bobby. Jerry thinks she's very exceptional. It's better to come out for Bobby."

Bailey could have gained a mount in the $1 million Classic at Gulfstream, but Anderson said his thinking was based on a long-term prospect that Sightseek would develop into a Breeders' Cup Distaff contender.

"The mindset for me is not so much the one day, even though there are huge purses," he said. "We're looking to not blow a chance on that filly later on. We're kind of looking at a Breeders' Cup situation. Bobby Frankel has done a lot of good with us the last couple of years."

For others, the lure of the prize money was the big factor. Valdivia is anxious to try the $1 million Classic with Long Gone Con. He also rides Jetinto Houston in the Filly and Mare Sprint and Company B in the Filly and Mare Turf.

Long Gone Con will be a longshot, but Valdivia is banking on Southern California trainer Craig Dollase's road record, which includes wins in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Sprint (Reraise) at Churchill Downs and 2002 Met Mile (Swept Overboard) at Belmont Park.

"I think Long Gone Con is ready and has a good shot," Valdivia said. "Craig Dollase's record speaks for itself. He doesn't ship out of town for a vacation.

"I know Gulfstream Park can be a speed-biased track. It should be fun to win the inaugural running of something. Usually, I'm winning the 50th running."