09/06/2013 4:10PM

Jay Hovdey: Pedroza proud to be riding Private Zone for best friend Douglas

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Private Zone beats Ain't No Other (1) to win the Pirate's Bounty Stakes and could be jockey Martin Pedroza's ticket to the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Martin Pedroza was asked what happened last year, when for the first time since 1999 he was not the leading rider at the Los Angeles County Fair, now known as Barretts Racing at Fairplex Park. He was sitting in the Del Mar jockeys lounge, in baggy shorts and a loose tank top befitting the final day of the summer meet. He raised his right arm.

“I had a spill,” Pedroza said. “Here, you can see it. The horse must have stepped on me, but I was lucky. It was pretty close to my head. I had 18 staples in there to close it up. I didn’t tell anybody or they wouldn’t have let me come back so quick. So I missed two days, but that’s a lot to miss.”

For the past quarter of a century, it has been a rule of thumb, at least in the mind of this reporter, that if Martin Pedroza can get hurt, anybody can get hurt. He is a hard man, in the strictest sense of the term, bereft of romantic notions about his chosen profession, devoid of any traces of fear.

Pedroza will school young riders quickly and without apology. His physical condition defies his age, which is 48. As he commenced his season at Fairplex on Friday, he had won 3,560 races, with an overwhelming 705 of those coming at the county fair.

The reminder of Pedroza’s latest wound has been reduced to a dark, two-inch scar running across the center of his armpit, the only outward evidence of the incident on the bullring’s clubhouse turn in the seventh race last Sept. 12. Whether or not the loss of time cost Pedroza his 14th straight meet title is academic – he ended up second to Edwin Maldonado, 26-19  – but the accident itself was textbook Fairplex.

Pedroza’s horse, Warren’s Tyler S., did not have the speed of the pacesetters from the six-furlong gate in front of the stands, and he was in jeopardy of losing further position going into the first hairpin turn. Maldonado was to Pedroza’s outside, ready to drop over if the opportunity presented itself, but Pedroza was determined to hold his position and gigged his mount just enough to get the message across.
Unfortunately, Warren’s Tyler S. overreacted and sped too fast into that turn. Maldonado held a tight line on the outside, while Pedroza did what he could to bend his horse to the left. The two horses bumped, Warren’s Tyler S. tripped, and Pedroza was launched forward to land hard in full view of the Kids’ Zone on the other side of the fence.

The physics of such a disruption in the otherwise orderly chaos of a horse race are as random as the stars. Pedroza was right – one of the scrambling hooves of Warren’s Tyler S. could have just as easily landed in the middle of his face instead of the pit of his arm. Instead, his relatively minor injury had to take its place well down the list of Pedroza’s greatest hits, which include a fractured pelvis, a lacerated liver, a broken shoulder, and sundry cracked ribs and crushed vertebrae.

“Anything can happen any time, anywhere,” Pedroza said. “I figure if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen no matter what I do.”
Pedroza had just finished a so-so Del Mar meet during which he won 10 races (15 would have put him in the top 10) but ended on a very high note. His best horse, the sprinter Private Zone, made his first appearance for trainer Doug O’Neill since an unsuccessful trip to Dubai last March for the Golden Shaheen and won the listed Pirate’s Bounty Stakes going six furlongs.

“He’s been at Hollywood Park, so I haven’t been working him,” Pedroza said. “Because of that, I wasn’t 100 percent sure he would be fit. There is a lot of pressure with this horse when you’re riding for your best friend.”

Pedroza was talking about fellow Panamanian Rene Douglas, the former rider who is part of the  Good Friends Stable that owns Private Zone. Douglas was paralyzed in an accident at Arlington Park in May 2009 and has been in a wheelchair since.

“He’s more like a brother to me,” Pedroza said. “But at first it was very hard. The first couple of years after his accident he would only answer my phone calls by text. Now, he’s more open about what happened. He’s handling it a lot better, and sometimes he acts like it never happened at all. And now he calls me way too much.”

Pedroza laughed. Much of their conversation turns around family – Pedroza’s son Brian rides at Delaware Park – and around the performances of Private Zone.

“In Dubai, he ran his race before we even got in the gate,” Pedroza said. “They circle round and round behind the gate before the race, seems like forever, and by the time they loaded he was dripping wet. Still, he broke running and tried hard.”
After pressing the lead three wide in the Golden Shaheen, Private Zone faded to finish ninth, beaten slightly less than five lengths by Reynaldothewizard.

At the time, Private Zone was in jeopardy of becoming America’s most famous bridesmaid. Between the fall of 2012 and early 2013, the Canadian-bred, Panama-raced Private Zone finished second in four straight stakes under Pedroza, including the Grade 1 Malibu to Jimmy Creed and the Grade 2 Palos Verdes to Sahara Sky, subsequent winner of the Metropolitan Mile.

As a result of the comeback win, Pedroza is hoping Private Zone can earn a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita, where he has run his best races, even in defeat. The jockey shared such sentiments with Douglas, who was the first person Pedroza called after Wednesday’s race. He was asked how his best friend reacted to the long-awaited win.

“He said, ‘It’s about time!’ ” Pedroza said with a laugh.

Just like brothers.