03/01/2002 12:00AM

Schooled in scandal, steeped in speed

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NEW ORLEANS - It's stock Hollywood narrative, really. Athlete takes sport by storm, falls from grace, and returns later in life seeking redemption. Fade out.

Three years after his soap opera began, Valhol may be ready to begin a new phase of his life this weekend. And, in a nice Hollywood touch, the plot takes Valhol back to the place it all started, Fair Grounds, the site of his first races and of Sunday's $500,000 New Orleans Handicap.

With scandal, sickness, and injury behind him, Valhol can enter the nation's elite circle of handicap horses if his revival continues. There's little reason to think it won't. With Robby Albarado riding him for the first time, Valhol arguably ran the best race of his up-and-down career last month in the Whirlaway Handicap, winning easily, running a fast time, and establishing himself as the best local hope for the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

Trainer Dallas Keen has a single word for Valhol's training in the three weeks since that race: "Awesome."

It wasn't Valhol's fault he got caught up in a scandal after winning his maiden in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby three years ago and was later disqualified when his rider, Billy Patin, was found to have carried an illegal electrical device. He was only doing his job. But the stigma has dogged Valhol, owner Jim Jackson, and Keen ever since.

"Someone said to me that there's no mentioning Valhol without mentioning all the stuff that's behind him," Jackson said. "But if he could win this race, it should end it."

Valhol never was a golden boy. He's far from the most beautiful horse in the world, and clings to the habit of cow-kicking Keen's pony while the trainer, in his black cowboy hat, gallops him around the racetrack on a lead shank some mornings.

Valhol is a son of Diazo, no brilliant success as a stallion, and was sold privately as a 2-year-old off Keeneland's training track. "I heard there was one for sale," Keen said. "He had no pedigree, and they were asking $30,000. I told Jim, 'He's got a pretty nice way of moving. We can't go wrong for that money.' "

Valhol wouldn't be Jackson's first bargain purchase to win the New Orleans Handicap. Allen's Oop, who cost Jackson even less than Valhol, won the race two meetings ago.

"I liked Valhol from the moment I saw him," said Jackson, a lifetime horseman who owns Valhalla Farm in Rockdale, Texas. "But Dallas called me after he started training on him and said, 'We might have made a mistake, boss. He does everything right, but he's only got one speed, and that's not very fast.' "

Valhol began getting much faster after he was gelded, and started training like a standout when he came to Fair Grounds in the fall of 1998. "I called Jim and told him it was too bad we didn't nominate this one for the Triple Crown," said Keen. "He said, 'I did.' "

With only a second-place finish in a maiden sprint race, Valhol ran in the Louisiana Derby and finished a close fourth. Keen and Jackson pushed audaciously onward, choosing the Arkansas Derby over a maiden race. And they elected to retain the services of the little known Louisiana-based jockey Billy Patin, who had ridden Valhol in his first two starts.

Keen and Jackson say they stayed loyal to Patin because he helped Keen in a time of need. "The man showed up every morning to clean stalls, walk hots, begging for a chance," Jackson recalled. Besides, Patin seemed to have a natural rapport with Valhol. "Billy taught me some things about the horse," Keen said.

A two-start maiden with an upstart jockey, Valhol went to Oaklawn Park and crushed the Arkansas Derby field at 30-1. And then things fell apart.

After the race an electrical device was found on the track. Videotape of the gallop-out past the finish line showed a dark object falling from Patin. Valhol's purse money was held up and eventually he was disqualified to last place, while Patin was banned from riding.

Valhol trained in a circus atmosphere and raced under a cloud in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and failed to get close in either race.

Jackson said he has moved past the tumult and disappointment of that spring. "It's done, there's nothing you can do about it, so there's no point thinking too much about it," he said.

But the experience still haunts Keen. "I've taken a beating ever since the Arkansas Derby," he said. "I'm more anxious training this horse up to a race and proving he's the horse I've always thought he was."

And Valhol has had to overcome much more than scandal to reach this turning point in his career. Since his last start as a 3-year-old, a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby, Valhol, now 6, has raced only nine times. He has had two bone chips removed from knees, had a broken splint bone removed, and battled a serious case of pneumonia late last summer. Veterinarians feared Valhol would suffer performance-compromising abscesses in his lungs from the pneumonia, but Valhol emerged from his illness in good health. Once a chronic bleeder, Valhol, Keen said, hasn't bled since he returned to training after the pneumonia.

"This rascal must have a heart that's unbelievable," Jackson said.

But all the major setbacks have minimized the daily wear and tear that eventually grinds down a racehorse. Valhol has outlasted his more heralded contemporaries from that 1999 Kentucky Derby, horses like Charismatic, Menifee, and Cat Thief, and is one of only two horses from that 19-horse field (Kimberlite Pipe is the other) still racing.

"The worst thing that happens to older horses is they wear out," Keen said. "You look at his ankles, at his knees, you'd think you were looking at a 2-year-old."

Which is why it's reasonable to think Valhol is just now finding his career-best form. The Whirlaway "was probably the best race of his life, even beyond the Arkansas Derby," Jackson said. And if Valhol continues to climb the handicap ranks, Keen and Jackson will point him for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Though when it comes to Valhol, plotting too far in advance may not be prudent.

"It seems like from the Arkansas Derby on, things just haven't worked out," Keen said. "Maybe now we can start going the right way."