03/04/2005 1:00AM

P. Val regains vintage form

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The latest comeback of jockey Patrick Valenzuela has featured a rise to the top three in the Santa Anita standings, a handful of stakes wins, a near-accident in Friday's first race, and a five-day suspension for careless riding.

Despite missing the first three weeks of the meeting while fighting a suspension from last summer for failing to take a hair follicle test, Valenzuela has been in outstanding form in recent weeks. Through Thursday, he was third in the standings with 40 wins, 3 wins behind leading rider Tyler Baze. He is also third in the national earnings standings with just over $1.9 million, only $30,000 behind Baze in first.

Valenzuela has won with 21 percent of his mounts, the highest winning percentage among the top 25 riders.

"I feel very comfortable right now," he said Friday morning.

Valenzuela was lucky not to fall in Friday's first race. Aaronasher, racing near the lead, broke down in the path of Valenzuela's mount, Consolidated Fact, who nearly fell. Consolidated Fact clipped heels with a fallen Aaronasher.

Despite Valenzuela's successful comeback, he does not have a top hope for the Kentucky Derby. Valenzuela, 42, rides plenty of claimers on weekdays, but knows he needs to gain top stakes mounts to complete the comeback.

Saturday, Valenzuela was booked to ride Lundy's Liability in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. Sunday, Valenzuela rides Royal Wave in the $100,000 La Habra Stakes.

"We've already won five stakes at this meeting, and that's not too bad," he said. "With a little luck we could have won more. It would be nice to get a couple of nice 3-year-olds and get that situated. I think things are coming together pretty good."

But the suspension may cost him a place in the standings. With the exception of graded stakes, Valenzuela will not ride from Wednesday through next Sunday. He was cited by the stewards for careless riding on Jammin JJ, who was disqualified from second to third in Wednesday's first race.

Valenzuela had a cool start to his comeback. He had one win with his first 15 mounts. From Feb. 18 through Friday, however, Valenzuela rode at least one winner a day for 12 racing days. Valenzuela won his 41st race of the meeting in Friday's second race aboard All the Boys ($6.40).

"As time went on I got more racing fit," he said. "I rode one month out of the last year. I like to ride a lot of horses. I think the number I ride only helps me improve."

Valenzuela won riding titles at all five major race meetings in Southern California in 2003.

In 2004, he did not ride from mid-January to late April after failing to appear for a mandatory drug test, part of his conditional license.

He rode for six weeks at Hollywood Park last spring before being suspended in June, further punishment for not appearing for the January drug test.

Valenzuela returned to riding on July 1, but rode just one day before he was suspended for failing to have sufficient hair to take a hair follicle drug test. The suspension was extended to the end of 2004 by the Del Mar stewards in August, but their decision was overturned on appeal by an administrative law judge, who said Valenzuela was not at fault.

The California Horse Racing Board endorsed the judge's opinion in early January, allowing for Valenzuela's comeback - and his latest success.

Continental Red changes barns

Continental Red, the millionaire 9-year-old gelding, has been pulled from trainer Adam Kitchingman's barn by owners Wes and Sharon Fitzpatrick after Kitchingman had a horse test positive for an excessive level of carbon dioxide last month.

The Kitchingman-trained Always the Best, who finished fifth in a maiden claiming race Feb. 16, tested in excess of the permitted level.

Continental Red was recently sent to Tony Gonzalez, a former assistant to Ian Jory who is based at Hollywood Park. Jory trained Continental Red until late January when he disbanded his stable in advance of taking a private training job in Saudi Arabia.

Continental Red made one start for Kitchingman, finishing last of eight in the San Luis Obispo Handicap on Feb. 19.

Testing for excessive levels of carbon dioxide, a result of administering what are known as milkshakes, has been conducted in Southern California since last summer. Since the Santa Anita meeting began Dec. 26, four trainers have had horses test positive, resulting in their starters being placed in a detention barn for 24 hours in advance of a race. The policy is in effect for 30 days following notification of the initial positive.

"We were terribly disappointed when the Kitchingman horse came up with a positive," said Wes Fitzpatrick, a former president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "I have been outspoken against milkshakes. We elected to make the decision and express our displeasure. We had discussed our zero tolerance policy with Adam."

Kitchingman said he was disappointed that the Fitzpatricks took Continental Red out of his barn.

"They have been good to me, and I wish them the best luck," he said.

Bisono, Garcia back soon

Jockey Alex Bisono and Julio Garcia, who were involved in a gruesome three-horse spill Feb. 26, are expected to return to riding in the next week.

Bisono was treated for muscle soreness and bruises. He was hoping to return to riding this week, but was urged by a doctor to take additional rest. Bisono is scheduled to resume riding on Wednesday.

Garcia escaped serious injury in the spill, but has been off with sore knees, according to his agent, Tony Matos.

* Jockey Felipe Martinez was taken to Arcadia Methodist Hospital after being unseated from Aaronasher in Friday's first race. Martinez complained of neck pain, track officials said. Aaronasher died after breaking the ankle on his right foreleg and sustaining a broken neck.