09/18/2006 12:00AM

P. Val back - in Canada, not California

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Michael Burns Photo Ltd.
Patrick Valenzuela guides Becrux (left) past pacesetter Sweet Return in Sunday's Woodbine Mile.

Jockey Patrick Valenzuela made an unexpected and winning return to racing on Sunday, riding Becrux to an upset victory in the Woodbine Mile. His appearance at the Canadian track was all the more surprising because Valenzuela is not yet cleared to ride on his home circuit in Southern California, where there are questions about his recent absence.

Sunday's mount was the first for Valenzuela since July 16. Corey Nakatani was originally scheduled to ride Becrux but hurt his shoulder Friday morning at Santa Anita, and trainer Neil Drysdale named Valenzuela - who, like Nakatani, has Tom Knust as an agent - as a replacement.

Valenzuela has not been fully cleared to ride in California by the California Horse Racing Board, which has asked that he provide a physician's documentation about his condition during his recent absence. As of Monday, the board still did not have that documentation. But the CHRB did not stand in Valenzuela's way of riding in Canada on Sunday, even though most jurisdictions have reciprocal agreements when it comes to jockey eligibility.

According to Ontario Racing Commission stewards, Valenzuela was licensed there on Sunday morning. Ontario stewards said they had checked with a steward at Fairplex Park and found there was no specific reason why Valenzuela could not be licensed in Canada.

"Currently there's not a ruling against him," Ingrid Fermin, executive director of the CHRB, said Monday. "He cannot be named on horses in California. He asked if he could ride in Canada. We have no jurisdiction over that, so it wasn't a problem for us."

With 3,921 victories at age 43, Valenzuela is one of the country's most successful and troubled riders. Earlier this year, he won the Santa Anita riding title with 77 victories and finished second to Victor Espinoza at Hollywood's spring-summer meet. But he has been troubled by a lengthy history of suspensions and problems with substance abuse. In December 2001, the California board issued him a conditional license that has been renewed annually and requires him to submit to drug testing at any time.

Valenzuela had not ridden since closing day at Hollywood. When Del Mar's meeting opened three days later, on July 19, he called that track's stewards, saying he was ill. Knust said Valenzuela had a back injury, might need surgery, and would miss the Del Mar meet.

Valenzuela underwent physical therapy at Las Encinas Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., but never had back surgery, Knust said Monday. Knust said Valenzuela spent more than a month at Las Encinas. Las Encinas is a facility that specializes in treating drug and mental health problems. According to the California board, Valenzuela was tested for drugs both before and after his hospital stay. All the tests were negative.

Mike Marten, a board spokesman, said that Valenzuela was asked to submit to a urine test on July 19 by a board investigator at Valenzuela's home. When Valenzuela phoned in sick again, this time to Del Mar on July 20, the investigator returned to Valenzuela's home. "No one came to the door," Marten said.

The investigator left a business card, asking for Valenzuela to contact the board. He did so on July 21. According to Marten, Valenzuela came to Santa Anita and passed another test.

On July 29, a board investigator left a phone message at Valenzuela's home, telling him arrangements needed to be made for Valenzuela to submit to a hair-follicle test, which experts say can detect drug use from months prior. Valenzuela did not reply.

On Aug. 3, according to Marten, investigators returned to Valenzuela's home, but there was no answer.

On Aug. 4, Valenzuela phoned the investigators, according to Marten. Valenzuela was told that he needed to submit to a hair-follicle test and that an investigator would phone him later in the day with details on where and when the test would take place.

"They tried to call him back the same day, but they couldn't reach him," Marten said.

According to Marten, the board phoned Valenzuela's attorney, Neil Papiano, and told him that Valenzuela needed to meet with Del Mar's stewards on Aug. 7.

On Aug. 6, according to Marten, Papiano phoned the stewards and said Valenzuela was hospitalized in Pasadena. A board investigator was sent to Las Encinas Hospital, but the hospital "would not confirm or deny his presence," Marten said.

According to Marten, the board phoned Papiano on Aug. 7 and said that Valenzuela must submit to testing while hospitalized.

But, Marten said, Valenzuela was not tested again until Sept. 6, when - having been discharged from the hospital - he came to Del Mar and met with the stewards in an attempt to be reinstated. Valenzuela also took a urine test, Marten said.

Valenzuela was given permission by the stewards to exercise horses but was told he could not resume race riding until he completed a hair-follicle test and provided detailed medical information about his absence.

Valenzuela took the hair-follicle test on Sept. 7, and it came back negative, Marten said.

"But we're still waiting for the documentation that was requested," Marten said.

The current situation adds to a lengthy list of suspensions for Valenzuela, including one in January 2004 for failing to appear for a required drug test and another in July 2004 - later overturned - for failing to meet requirements of a hair-follicle test because his body was shaved.

Since his career began in November 1978, Valenzuela has been suspended or denied a license to ride for 82 months - nearly seven years.