05/27/2004 12:00AM

Given a shot, jockey Valdes has proved himself

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Racing's version of "Catch-22" had Ricardo Valdes in its grasp for a long time. But it looks like he has finally escaped.

After riding with modest success for 10 years at tracks such as Penn National, Philadelphia Park, and Detroit Race Course, Valdes was reduced to the role of exercising horses in 1998.

Valdes, a native of Panama, was eager to prove he was skillful enough to win races. But without the statistics to back up his belief, or a reputation as a "name" rider, Valdes rarely could get a mount. For more than four years, Valdes was stuck in limbo, exercising horses to pay the bills and waiting for somebody to give him a break.

The man who showed faith in Valdes was trainer Mike Gorham.

"Most of the owners wanted a leading jockey to ride their horses, so Mike had to listen to them, but when he got a chance, he would ride me," Valdes said. "When I got the chances, I won. It really snowballed from there."

After gradually working his way back to riding full time, Valdes has finally found his niche at Delaware Park. Heading into Saturday's program, the 38-year-old Valdes ranks ninth in the jockey standings with 11 wins, 7 seconds, and 10 thirds from 56 mounts. That's only two fewer victories than he achieved from 1998 through 2001.

"While he was working for me, he rode one here and there," Gorham said about Valdes's stint as an exercise rider. "As he got more fit, I steadily kept putting him on more horses. He is an excellent rider, and things have worked out great for us."

In combination with Gorham, Valdes is 6 for 23 with a $3.76 return on investment since Delaware opened on April 24.

Fueled by a victory aboard 51-1 bomb Twin Task on May 24, Valdes has produced an overall $4.21 ROI with his Delaware mounts. He's also showing a healthy profit at Charles Town (11 for 91, $2.23 ROI).

Unlike in the past, Gorham's owners are now requesting Valdes.

"Some of his owners started asking for me because of the success I had riding their other horses," Valdes said. "Now I am getting a chance to ride his nicer horses. I think Mike and his owners have seen that I try real hard."

Can Speedy Falcon repeat history?

Last year at this time, Island Fashion was a California-based 3-year-old filly whose only victory had come in the Sunland Oaks in New Mexico. Island Fashion came east and rose to prominence by winning the Delaware Oaks and the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga.

This spring, Speedy Falcon is trying to follow in Island Fashion's footsteps.

Speedy Falcon, a six-length winner in this year's Sunland Oaks, flew in from Southern California earlier this week to run in Saturday's $100,000 Go for Wand Stakes, the first local prep for the $500,000 Delaware Oaks on July 17.

Speedy Falcon, who most recently ran third in the Grade 3 Railbird Stakes at Hollywood Park, has won 6 of 8 starts. She's trained by Henry Dominguez, Sunland Park's leading trainer in 2003.

Dominguez said he chose to bring Speedy Falcon to Delaware because of the $175,000 Susan's Girl Breeders' Cup on June 19 and the Delaware Oaks.

"If she handles the track at Delaware, then we may decide to keep her there," Dominguez said. "This will be the first time I have come east with any of my horses, so this is something new for me as well."

Speedy Falcon's competition in the 1 1/16-mile Go for Wand includes Hopelessly Devoted, who makes her stakes debut after winning her last two starts by a combined 15 lengths; From Away, a two-time stakes winner as a 2-year-old at Delaware; and Many Many Bows, who defeated older horses at Pimlico in her last start.