11/02/2007 12:00AM

Out for a year, P. Val rides again

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - After nearly a year's absence from competition, Patrick Valenzuela was named to ride four horses on Saturday and four more on Sunday at Zia Park, in southeastern New Mexico, marking yet another comeback in his turbulent career.

Valenzuela suffered three fractured ribs when kicked by his mount in a grisly paddock accident at Hollywood Park on Nov. 26, 2006. After that, he said he underwent knee surgery and has spent most of 2007 recovering and rehabilitating the knee. Reached in New Mexico on Friday, Valenzuela said that he was ready to roll.

"It was a long process to get the body back to where it needed to be, and I feel really good," Valenzuela said. "I've been working about five or six horses a morning, and I really look forward to getting back on a horse tomorrow and riding a race. Win, lose or draw, just getting back is the winning part of it all."

Valenzuela said that he is anxious to return to competition on the Southern California circuit, where he won seven riding titles from the summer of 2002 to the winter of 2005. On Friday he said he hoped to come in at a riding weight of 120 pounds this weekend - his eight mounts were assigned to carry weights ranging from 117 to 123 pounds - but that's nothing compared to the baggage of chemical dependency he has carried throughout most of his career.

Valenzuela has won a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness, and seven Breeders' Cup events among his 3,956 victories. He has also lost approximately seven years to either suspensions or license denials, but if you ask him what happened and why, he usually will reply as he did on Friday:

"I'm just taking it one day at a time and having a good time at it," Valenzuela said, then added, "and if you can keep everything on an optimistic, positive note, I'd really appreciate it."

Sure. No problem. No public figure owes the media a thing when it comes to the details of their private life, as long as that private life does not slop over into their public performance. Even then, the public must recognize the difference between their desire to know the most intimate details and their need to know anything at all. It's a fine line, constantly crossed and ever blurred.

And it works both ways. By sticking to his policy of don't ask, don't tell, Valenzuela can't expect to receive the sympathy and understanding he craves.

Whether or not Valenzuela deserves the benefit of the doubt as he makes another comeback is beside the point. He gets the benefit of the doubt because the system provides it, usually free of charge. His most recent absence is being viewed as injury related, which certainly happens in the life of a jockey. Nevertheless, in Valenzuela's case, he has chosen to retain legal representation in order to sort through the demands of the various licensing jurisdictions, particularly in California, where he must ride under a contract agreement that includes specific drug-testing requirements.

As of Friday morning, Valenzuela had not yet signed the contract presented by the California Horse Racing Board. But he did say he was expecting a faxed copy to be sent to him Friday afternoon, and that he would "probably sign it and get back on the circuit out there as soon as it gets back in their hands." Valenzuela's first opportunity possibly would be the Wednesday, Nov. 7, opening-day program at Hollywood Park, for which entries are taken on Sunday.

The last time Valenzuela made meaningful headlines in New Mexico was in June of 1988, while riding there during a period of time when he was suspended in California for failure to fulfill riding engagements and appear before the stewards. He was suspended in New Mexico as well, after refusing to submit to a urine test, then subsequently sued the New Mexico Racing Commission, alleging that he was not afforded due process.

Ancient history, of course. Valenzuela has been in good standing in New Mexico for a number of years, good enough that he was able to be licensed without fuss to ride this weekend, in contrast to the lengthier California negotiations.

In the meantime, Valenzuela said he has been enjoying his brief spell in New Mexico, where he grew up and actually won his first race on Nov. 10, 1978, at Sunland Park. His brother J.D. Valenzuela is currently riding at Zia Park as well.

"It's been good to come home and see some of the old faces," said Valenzuela, who turned 45 on Oct. 17.

The answer might have been obvious, but the deeply competitive Valenzuela was asked why he would want to try and make yet another comeback at an age when many jockeys boasting similar credentials would be considering retirement.

"I love to ride," he said. "And I've been blessed in that area. I just have to thank God for getting back."

He also has four daughters, two of them in college, who rely upon Valenzuela for a certain level of support.

"No joke, huh?" he said. "It's about time I went back to work."