04/21/2004 11:00PM

Justice delayed and all that

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Patrick Valenzuela will be welcomed back to riding Sunday with a round of applause from his many fans, a leg up from a top trainer in the feature, and a plastic container marked "urine specimen" from the investigative staff of the California Horse Racing Board.

Thanks to a stay granted by California Horse Racing Board chairman John Harris, Valenzuela will be able to ride while appealing the stewards' ruling that effectively suspended his license for the remainder of 2004. Stewards Pete Pedersen, Ingrid Fermin, and Tom Ward ruled that Valenzuela broke the terms of an iron-clad contract last Jan. 22, when he failed to submit to a drug test as demanded by CHRB investigators.

Valenzuela says there is a clause in his contract that provides a medical excuse for not producing a test at that particular time. His case is based on documentation submitted by mental health experts who contend Valenzuela was suffering from severe depression. The last time he was tested for drugs by CHRB investigators was Jan. 19, more than three months ago.

At some point, it will be up to a hearing officer at an administrative law hearing to interpret Valenzuela's contract and decide whether Valenzuela was in violation. The hearing officer then submits his recommendations to the full board of California racing commissioners, who then have the option of accepting, rejecting, or modifying those recommendations.

But don't hold your breath. It might take awhile.

A spokeperson for the CHRB office in Sacramento noted that the state Office of Administrative Hearings is suffering from both severe backlog and budget cuts. The OAH must provide hearings for all manner of state agencies, and the plight of one jockey doesn't hold much urgency when compared to the appeal of numerous pink-slipped California teachers.

For example, Corey Nakatani received a 30-day suspension in mid-March from the Santa Anita board of stewards, who held Nakatani responsible for a horse and rider falling in a race there March 6. In leveling such a severe penalty, the stewards cited evidence of intent on Nakatani's part.

Nakatani appealed the suspension and sought a stay. The stay was granted by a Superior Court judge, and Nakatani has been able to compete without interruption while awaiting his appeal hearing to be scheduled. According to the CHRB office, a hearing date was nearly set last week, but it conflicted with the schedule of Nakatani's attorney. There is no new date in sight.

In the 37 days since the stay was issued, Nakatani has won 26 races, his mounts have earned more than $1 million, and he picked up a legitimate chance to win his first Kentucky Derby on May 1, when he'll be aboard Quintons Gold Rush, winner of the Lexington Stakes.

When it comes to appeals, Valenzuela has a well-documented history of taking full advantage of all legal and procedural avenues.

In 2003, the various boards of stewards policing Southern California racetracks found sufficient cause to suspend Valenzuela eight times, for a total of 34 days, over a variety of riding infractions.

Valenzuela appealed each of those rulings. He waited out the lengthy appeals process while continuing to ride, then dropped most of the appeals and batched his pending suspensions together at the end of 2003 and early 2004. By that time he had won every major riding title on the circuit.

The potential for a similar scenario exists in Valenzuela's current situation. Since the process can be stretched over several months, the Valenzuela appeal might not be heard until September, October, or perhaps November, after the Breeders' Cup. Valenzuela could ride for several months, enjoying the fruits of his hard work and considerable skills, then drop his appeal and agree to submit to the stewards' ruling of April 2, which directed that he could reapply for licensing on Jan. 1, 2005.

The April 2 ruling was not specific on the number of days Valenzuela should be suspended, only that he could reapply Jan. 1, 2005. By one interpretation, a prolonged appeal process could cut deeply into the penalty period, allowing Valenzuela to ride for several months, drop the appeal, then reapply at the start of 2005.

"The question has come up," said steward Tom Ward. "But it would be our position that any time spent riding while under appeal would not count toward the period of time we had in mind for him to be able to reapply."

Everyone deserves full and equal representation under the American system of justice, and that includes thorough access to the appeals process. If a dangerous felon like Martha Stewart can be walking the streets and decorating cakes while awaiting the appeal of her federal conviction for lying - lying! - then who could possibly have qualms about jockeys going back to work while their rulings grind through the appeal system?

The best, most honorable thing Valenzuela can do would be to ask for an expedited hearing date, then make his case with all the evidence at his disposal. After that, the CHRB should accept the recommendation of the independent hearing officer.

In the meantime, Valenzuela will be riding as hard as ever, thrilling fans and seducing owners and trainers with a boyish charm and unbridled enthusiasm that belies the demons of his addiction. Let's just hope he's worth all the trouble.