12/10/2004 12:00AM

Milo's night long time coming

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - They named him Ismael, but they called him Milo, and for a dozen years during a gilded age of American racing he rode some of the very best horses in the land - including the most famous of them all.

The man and his horses will be celebrated Sunday night at Santa Anita Park, where the Chandelier Room of the elegant Turf Club will be the scene of a tribute to Ismael "Milo" Valenzuela. Spearheaded by Diana Valenzuela, who works for the California Horse Racing Board, the evening is a daughter's gift to a father who sometimes needs reminding that his name and deeds have not been forgotten.

The guest list is choice, but let's not spoil the surprises, just in case someone slips Valenzuela this newspaper on Sunday morning. It is enough to note that Diana Valenzuela combed through racing programs that date back a half-century or more in order to assemble a room full of her father's best memories.

"I didn't know about it until a week ago," Milo said Thursday from his home in Arcadia, where he is dealing with the effects of three mild strokes suffered over the last few years. "I guess there will be a lot of old friends there."

Old friends like Laffit Pincay, for certain, who was a fresh-faced kid right off the boat from Panama when he first encountered Milo Valenzuela at Arlington Park, during the summer of 1966. "He was one of the top riders in the country," Pincay said. "His name was very well known. And he was helpful to me in every way."

Valenzuela's version has a twist.

"Laffit was a nice guy, and right away we became friends," Valenzuela recalled. "But some of the riders there in Chicago tried to take advantage of him, and we almost got into a fight. Laffit told me, 'Milo, I can take care of myself.' "

Valenzuela was born on Christmas Day, 1934, in the Texas border town of McNary, population barely 100. Mexico was two miles to the south, across the Rio Grande, while the big city of El Paso was upriver, 60 miles to the northwest.

To get to El Paso from McNary, you had to drive, walk, or ride through another dusty stop named Fabens. On Christmas Day of 1934, while the Valenzuelas were welcoming their newest boy, the Shoemakers of Fabens were doing the best they could to celebrate the Depression era holiday with their tiny 2 1/2-year-old son, Willie Lee.

Nearly three decades later, after Milo Valenzuela replaced Bill Shoemaker as the rider of reigning Horse of the Year Kelso, the geographical coincidence was not lost on scribes. What was it about that stretch of arid, southwest Texas that produced two of the best jockeys in the world? It couldn't have been the water. Economic opportunity did not exist. Maybe it was simply the fact that there was nowhere to go but up.

Shoemaker has long been installed among the legends of American sports. Valenzuela, on the other hand, had to settle for the respect that went along with the supporting members of the Shoemaker generation. Shoemaker was great in part because he had to beat guys like Bill Hartack, Don Pierce, John Rotz, Bill Boland, Bobby Ussery, Walter Blum, and Milo Valenzuela - all of them about the same age, banging heads for the best mounts and rarely inclined to give anything away.

Still, the Valenzuela record can stand alone. By the early 1970's, when the downslope of his career commenced and he began to pay the toll for hard living, Valenzuela's win total ranked among the top 20 of all time. He officially retired in 1980 with 2,545 winners from 21,203 mounts, and what jewels he had among them:

* At the age of 21, while riding for an up-and-coming trainer named Charlie Whittigham, Valenzuela and Porterhouse shocked Shoemaker and Swaps in an unforgettable running of the 1956 Californian.

* Two years later, Valenzuela was in the right place at the right time to step in for the injured Bill Hartack on Calumet Farm's Tim Tam. Together they won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and probably would have won the Triple Crown if the colt had not broken down in the Belmont.

* Calumet and Valenzuela came close again in 1968 with Forward Pass, who won the Derby on the disqualification of Dancer's Image and the Preakness' outright before finishing second in the Belmont.

At one time or another, Valenzuela threw his leg over such champions and Hall of Famers as Warfare, Affectionately, Round Table, Silver Spoon, Primonetta, Old Hat, Native Diver and Cicada. But it is Kelso, mighty Kelso, with whom his name forever will be linked.

Between August 1962 through their final, victorious race together in the 1965 Stymie Handicap, Valenzuela rode Kelso 35 times and won 22.

"He was the kind of horse you had to pick up and take a real good hold of all the time," Valenzuela said. "The more hold you took, the more he liked to run. One time, both of my hands felt paralyzed, I had so much hold. He won by 10 lengths."

Ridden primarily by Eddie Arcaro, Kelso was Horse of the Year in 1960 and 1961. With Valenzuela aboard, Kelso was Horse of the Year in 1963, 1964, and 1965. No other rider can lay claim to such a feat.

"Milo was a great rider - a strong rider," Pincay said. "Definitely, he belongs in the Hall of Fame."

He is not there, at least not yet. But for now, a special night like Sunday is just what the doctor ordered.