02/16/2005 12:00AM

To Moss, a duty not a conflict

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It was bound to happen sooner or later. On Saturday at Santa Anita, for the first time since his reinstatement by the California Horse Racing Board in January, Pat Valenzuela won a major race for one of the seven commissioners responsible for allowing the continuation of his career.

In this case, the commissioner is Jerry Moss, who owns La Canada Stakes winner Tarlow with his wife, Ann. Tarlow's victory in the $200,000 La Canada Stakes at 1 1/8 miles was a patented piece of front-running Valenzuela handiwork and a tribute to trainer John Shirreffs, who had the filly ready to run the race of her life.

The tight main track may have helped Tarlow carry her speed to some degree, especially in light of a pedigree that leans more toward a mile. And certainly the lack of pressure through the opening quarter didn't hurt, along with the absence of a potential pace threat from the scratched Pussycat Doll. Still, take nothing away from Tarlow, who finally is living up to the promise she displayed first crack out of the box at Del Mar during the summer of 2003.

Tarlow has been raced sparingly since, which is more a function of her trainer's attitude than any ongoing problems with the filly. Shirreffs, channeling the old masters, is a horseman of infinite patience who rarely loses faith in a racehorse once he has measured a spark of brilliance. Tarlow fit the bill, and the feeling became contagious.

"John never gave up," Moss said. "John also likes to race happy horses, because when they're having a good time, chances are they're going to run better. We finally realized that she really likes to be in front, so let's figure out a way for her to relax, enjoy herself, and carry her speed."

Tarlow is named for Rose Tarlow, a member of the Interior Designers Hall of Fame and creator of the Melrose House collection of fabrics and furnishings, one of those "if you have to ask how much, you can't afford it" catalogs. I had to ask.

Anyway, the filly has made Rose Tarlow a fan. Moss was not the only one anxious to see how the story would unfold.

"At one point she was off for nine months," Moss said. "Every once in awhile Rose would ask, 'Hey, how's my horse doing?'"

Tarlow is only the latest in a long line of quality runners to be campaigned under the Moss colors. Sardula, Ruhlmann, Delicate Vine, Fighting Fit, Kudos, and the recently retired Belleski represent a rich sampler of their success. The Moss trophy case includes priceless baubles from such events as the Santa Anita Handicap, the Kentucky Oaks, the Oaklawn Handicap, the Californian, and now the La Canada.

Until a year ago, Jerry Moss was content to be an owner, breeder, and private advocate for the health and welfare of the Thoroughbred industry. Then came his appointment, in February 2004, to the California Horse Racing Board.

"Owning horses makes me understand what I have to deal with," Moss said. "This is a very intricate business. You can't have somebody walking off the street, adjudicating important matters. They wouldn't know where to begin."

Over the past year, CHRB business has been dominated by milkshake testing, jockey insurance, and the search for a new executive director, as well as the ongoing issue of Valenzuela's reinstatement. On Jan. 7, Moss and his fellow commissioners voted unanimously to accept the decision of an administrative law judge and vacate a stewards' ruling from last August that recommended Valenzuela never be licensed in California again.

Anyone who remains frustrated by the more recent turn of events in the Valenzuela case can fix their blame on the flawed contract drawn up by administrative law judge David Rosenman and endorsed by former CHRB executive director Roy Wood in May 2004. Because of Valenzuela's history of substance abuse and unexplained absences, that contract required him to submit to hair follicle testing on demand. When the demand arose, on the afternoon of July 1, Valenzuela was found to have shaved every testable strand of hair from his body. He was subsequently suspended for the rest of 2004.

Over the ensuing months, Valenzuela's legal team emphasized that the letter of the contract said nothing about testing hair strands, only follicles. In the end, the seven commissioners had a hard decision: stand by the general intent of a poorly worded contract and face continuing court challenges, or reinstate the jockey with a freshly written, iron-clad drug-testing contract in place.

"There were things about this case the board needed to know, and we didn't get to know," Moss said. "That was the old way of doing business, and that's not the way it's being done now."

As for a commissioner who owns horses benefitting from Valenzuela's skills as a rider, in the wake of the jockey's latest reinstatement, Moss rejects the perception of a conflict of interest. Indeed, he feels he would have shirked his duty had he not taken part in the decision.

"Our decision was based on the facts presented," Moss said. "Once it has been decided he gets another chance, then he should be given that chance unbridled until he fails. So you have to give him a full last chance. And I think it's pretty well written this time that it is a last chance."