07/17/2007 12:00AM

'Old man' Valdivia in strong position

Alex Evers/Horsephotos
Jose Valdivia Jr. will ride many of Ron Ellis's stakes-caliber runners.

DEL MAR, Calif. - At the grand age of 32, Jose Valdivia Jr. has watched the jockeys' room in Southern California change around him in recent months.

"I feel like I'm old," he said recently. "There are so many young riders."

Yes, young fellows such as Michael Baze, 20, and Joe Talamo, 17, finished one-two in the jockeys standings at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, well ahead of Valdivia, who finished sixth with 30 wins.

But it is Valdivia that the young riders may envy in coming weeks. The "old man" is closely allied with the red-hot Ron Ellis stable, which is loaded with stakes-caliber runners for the Del Mar meeting.

It was not many years ago that Valdivia was one of the circuit's young riders. He has a riding title to his credit - Fairplex Park in 1995 - but what crowds the shelves at his Sierra Madre, Calif., home are trophies that display his success as a big-race rider.

Valdivia, who won his first million-dollar race in the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile at Belmont Park aboard Val Royal, had an outstanding Del Mar last year, winning the $400,000 Del Mar Derby on Get Funky and the $400,000 Del Mar Oaks on Arravale. But in the overall standings, he was only 13th, a figure he hopes to improve upon this summer.

"For whatever reason, guys don't come to me for the cheap races," he said. "For whatever reason, I've been dubbed a grass rider, and they don't run $12,500 claimers on grass.

"To be honest, I have no complaints about that. I heard on TVG that the synthetic tracks ride like a grass course. That may be the key to my success. To be leading rider, you have to ride six or seven races a day, and I don't ride that many races a day."

Valdivia has an excellent chance to win the first graded stakes of the 2007 Del Mar meeting aboard Buzzards Bay in Saturday's Grade 2, $300,000 San Diego Handicap. Next weekend, he is expected to ride Declan's Moon, the 2004 champion

2-year-old male, in the $300,000 Bing Crosby Handicap over six furlongs. Ellis trains both.

Buzzards Bay gave Valdivia his biggest win of the Hollywood Park meeting, in the $250,000 Californian Stakes in June. Buzzards Bay missed the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup in late June because of a sore back, but has trained well in recent weeks, according to Ellis.

Declan's Moon ended a seven-race losing streak with a victory in an allowance race over six furlongs at Hollywood Park earlier this month. To Valdivia, it was a breakthrough performance, considering the gelding showed new tactics, rallying from off the pace instead of racing with the leaders.

"I know people will say he didn't beat much, but I like the way he did it," Valdivia said. "I geared him down in the last 60 or 70 yards. It's definitely something to look forward to."

Later in the meeting, Valdivia is hoping that the recent allowance race winner Latin Rhythms and Glorified, who finished second in her stakes debut on July 2, can win stakes. Again, Ellis is the trainer.

As one of the most well-respected trainers on the circuit, Ellis could ride any jockey he wants. He said he sticks with Valdivia for many of his leading horses because they form a team aspect in a sport not necessarily built on such alliances.

"We're on the same page and that's a big help," Ellis said. "He's very patient and has great hands. I think he's very confident.

"We've always had an understanding of what I've wanted done in racing. I think he's very smart and very good to help develop horses, too. He's always willing to help in the morning if we need help. I think he really likes what he's doing."

Valdivia has evolved into an established voice in the jockeys' room. He rode in Southern California at a time when Hall of Famers such as Eddie Delahoussaye, Julie Krone, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr., and Gary Stevens were vying for top mounts.

Today, Valdivia says that David Flores and Alex Solis have taken a more senior role. He stops short of placing himself in that category.

"There are a couple of kids that ask me for advice," he said. "I've always been a behind-the-scenes kind of guy."

Valdivia will be at the forefront if he has the Del Mar meeting he expects.