02/07/2004 12:00AM

Talented but troubled, Valenzuela may be out of miracle comebacks

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Top jockey Patrick Valenzuela has struggled with addiction for more than a decade but always managed spectacular comebacks. Now he is gone again, and this time could be different.

ARCADIA, Calif. - There have always been two Patrick Valenzuelas.

There is the rider who arrives in the paddock and fires up owners and trainers with his unbridled enthusiasm and confidence, telling them, "Let's get lucky." He has the innate ability to return repeatedly from lengthy absences and quickly rise to the top, remarkable for any athlete in any sport. Last year, Valenzuela was the top rider at all five major race meetings in Southern California. He has won 3,553 races, including the Kentucky Derby, seven Breeders' Cup races, and $126 million in purses - unquestionable Hall of Fame credentials.

But there is also the troubled loner with an emotionally draining marriage, the latest in a series of dysfunctional relationships with women. Valenzuela is a pariah in the jockeys room because of an aggressive riding style that many rivals feel crosses the line between intimidation and danger. He has no friends there and few outside the room. Above all, he is constantly fighting a battle to stay sober, according to those who have worked closest with him. Not counting penalties for minor infractions like careless riding, Valenzuela has been suspended or denied a license to ride for 70 months - nearly 6 years - including 4 years and 7 months since October 1996. At age 41, he has followed the same checkered path of jockey Chris Antley and baseball players Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry, each of whom struggled to elude the grasp of substance abuse.

The latest fall for Valenzuela occurred on Jan. 22, when he failed to show up at Santa Anita for a mandatory drug test after claiming to have twisted his ankle at home that morning. Under the terms of the conditional license Valenzuela received in December 2001 from the California Horse Racing Board - which set strict requirements for drug testing and counseling - failure to show up for a drug test is the equivalent of failing the test. It is "prima facie evidence that you really are guilty," said Roy Wood, the executive director of the racing board.

On Jan. 23, Santa Anita's stewards suspended Valenzuela indefinitely, and now the question is being asked: Has Patrick Valenzuela ridden his last race?

"We're going to have to see his side before assuming what everyone assumes," said Pete Pedersen, one of Santa Anita's stewards. "We'll have to evaluate everything in the cool light of day."

This might be Valenzuela's biggest longshot. He has not contacted the stewards or the board since Jan. 22, and until he does he cannot begin the process of potential reinstatement. Valenzuela would first have a hearing before the stewards, who have shown an inclination to increase the length of Valenzuela's suspensions with each new transgression. If they ruled against him, he could appeal to the board. If the board ruled against him, his final recourse would be the court system.

As of Friday, Valenzuela had not responded to calls from the stewards, board investigators, or reporters. According to investigators and friends, he is at home near Santa Anita, where he screens calls. Asked why Valenzuela had not contacted the stewards or the board, a counselor who has worked with Valenzuela said that in situations like this, feelings of guilt and embarrassment can lead to inertia.

Valenzuela's suspension culminated a tumultuous week. On Jan. 19, he fired his agent, Nick Cosato, despite their success the previous year. For two days, Valenzuela could not get one of Santa Anita's established agents to handle his business. He finally hired former jockey Corey Black, who works as a commentator for TVG. But on the first day Black was to work for Valenzuela, the rider went AWOL.

Those who have worked closest with Valenzuela over the years - the counselors and board investigators - say there were signs he was struggling long before the week of Jan. 19. They describe a man who became so overwhelmed by his struggle with addiction and financial obligations that he retreated to a familiar, yet dangerous cocoon.

"One thing they say about alcoholism, which I'm familiar with, is that you start drinking two weeks before you drink. It starts that way, psychologically and emotionally," said Don Murray, the former executive director of the Winners Foundation, an on-site counseling service for racetrack personnel. Murray, who said he has been a recovering alcoholic for 18 years, worked with Valenzuela for more than a decade before retiring last year.

"You get more grouchy and irritable," Murray said. "You start making demands."

Mike Kilpack, the Southern Regional supervisor for the board, said that as far back as the summer meeting at Del Mar board investigators were concerned about Valenzuela's behavior. At the time, his marriage apparently was undergoing great strain. One morning at Del Mar, Valenzuela was seen driving slowly on Via de la Valle, talking with his wife, Valerie, who was walking next to the car and appeared greatly agitated. Valenzuela took the next two days off, telling the stewards he needed to be with his wife. During the course of the Del Mar meeting, the board increased the frequency of his testing from an average of twice a week to every day, even before he had a fight with jockey Omar Berrio on the penultimate day of the season.

"He was argumentative and was showing up late. We heard that he and Nick were having problems," said Kilpack, who oversaw Valenzuela's on-site drug testing. "We couldn't let something like that fester. When we told Patrick we were going to test him every day, he didn't like that, but we kept telling him it was for his betterment. He wanted to fire his attorney, Don Calabria. He wanted to fire Nick. He wanted to sue me. We kept telling him, 'We're here to help.'"

In recent weeks, there were more disturbing signs.

In December during Hollywood Park's fall meeting, Cosato also took on Corey Nakatani as a client. Valenzuela had always demanded an agent work solely for him, but while absent for a week complaining of illness, he agreed to let Cosato take on another rider.

In mid-January, Valenzuela gave Cosato an ultimatum - him or me. Cosato told Valenzuela he would not go back on his word with Nakatani and was going to work for both riders unless Valenzuela decided otherwise. "I told him he's going to have to fire me," Cosato said.

Cosato had been with Valenzuela since his reinstatement in December 2001. Last year, Valenzuela became only the second jockey to lead the standings at every meeting at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar in a single year, joining Chis McCarron in 1983. He was named one of the three finalists for a 2003 Eclipse Award as champion jockey, joining Jerry Bailey and Edgar Prado. Despite all that, Valenzuela fired Cosato.

"Up until the week of his disappearance, he had been in compliance with the program set up by the stewards and the CHRB," said Bob Fletcher, the executive director of the Winners Foundation. "But we had begun to get worried, because of his behavior and his actions. Nick was becoming concerned and worried.

"The firing of Nick was a major alarm. If you're going well, why change it? We said to him, 'It's a winning relationship. Why are you changing? Let's talk about it.' We were trying to get him to talk more about his feelings. Why was he upset? Why was he generating so much anger and resentment?"

Fletcher said Valenzuela's marriage was weighing on the jockey. This is his fourth marriage. He has four daughters, the oldest of whom is 20, from previous marriages. Valerie has a child from a previous relationship, and lives year-round in Solana Beach, near Del Mar, where her child is in school.

"Long-distance, high-mileage relationships are tough to stay in, in the best of relationships," Fletcher said. "They're tough on a normal, daily basis. When you have the added ingredients of Patrick's life, you need to share your feelings, or it becomes a pressure-cooker."

Valenzuela has a history of going AWOL if he suspects he is going to test dirty, and those closest to him fear he has had a relapse.

"If you're not happy with things, that's the way you deal with it," Murray said. "It's the same as fat people eating too much. But if we drink, which is our way of coping, it's suicide. The problem with addiction is that it's always sitting there. There's no cure for alcoholism or drug addiction. The only way to get through it is abstinence."

Valenzuela, according to several people, had grown increasingly paranoid in recent weeks. If someone wanted to visit him, they said, he thought there were ulterior motives. One of the people said Valenzuela was using drugs that exacerbated his paranoia. In February 2000, Valenzuela tested positive for amphetamines. He tested positive for cocaine in October 1989.

Even before Valenzuela went AWOL two weeks ago, there was suspicion at the track that he was was using drugs again. Valenzuela has a history that suggests he tried to beat tests. In January 1996, while riding in Florida, a state lab said urine from a sample submitted by Valenzuela was "not human." He tested positive for cocaine in New Mexico in May 1988, but the test was thrown out for what one racing commission member there called "a technicality." In November 1990, in a situation similar to his current predicament, Valenzuela refused orders by the stewards to come in for a drug test after phoning in sick during Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. A month later, he received a six-month suspension.

When Valenzuela was reinstated two years ago, following a 22-month absence, he agreed to be tested at any time. He was tested at least eight times a month, according to Kilpack. Every day, Valenzuela had to report to the CHRB investigators' office at the track currently racing. At that time, a schedule overseen by Kilpack was consulted, and if it was test day, Valenzuela had to submit a urine sample.

There were two types of tests. One was a general-screening test for amphetamines, such as speed, as well as cocaine, marijuana, and opiates, such as heroin, Kilpack said. The test is performed simply by re-sealing the jar, and tipping it at an angle so some urine goes into a reservoir. "You have the results in a minute," Kilpack said. It costs $10 per test. The other type of test was more extensive and was sent to a lab, and the results were not known for three days. It costs $30. Kilpack estimated that Valenzuela took about 10 general-screening tests to every lab test. Valenzuela was required to pay for each test.

Kilpack - who has worked for the board for 20 years and has known Valenzuela that long - said either he or investigators Doug Aschenbrenuer, Frank Fink, Richie Guerrero, Jim Hamilton, or Chris Loop were required to go into the bathroom with Valenzuela and observe him urinate. "We have to watch the discharge," Kilpack said. "A jockey who used to ride around here, Brian Long, once had a container of Visine with him when he had to take a test. That's why we have to see the penis and see the discharge."

According to Kilpack, Valenzuela last had a random screening test on the morning of Jan. 19, which is the day he fired Cosato and the last day he rode. He had a more extensive lab test from a urine sample submitted Jan. 14. Both were clean, Kilpack said.

On Jan. 19, Fink said Wood called from the board office in Sacramento. Having heard that Valenzuela fired Cosato, Wood requested that the on-site investigators begin testing Valenzuela on a daily basis. There was no racing on Jan. 20 or 21. On Jan. 22, when Valenzuela called to say he had twisted his ankle, the stewards demanded he come to the track to take a test. He never showed up.

The following day, after the stewards issued their ruling suspending Valenzuela indefinitely, Fink and Guerrero went to Valenzuela's home to inform him.

"The curtains were drawn, but his truck was in his driveway," Fink said. "There was no answer when we knocked on the door, so we left the ruling in his mailbox."

"When he falls, he doesn't come to work. He's told me that," Kilpack said. "I knew if it would happen, it would happen this way. I didn't want this to happen. It's very, very unfortunate."

Valenzuela has had his share of supporters. A number of high-profile owners have tried to help him. Bob Lewis, who owned a large Budweiser distributorship, employed Valenzuela during one of his lengthy suspensions. John Amerman, the former chief executive of toy maker Mattel, gushed over Valenzuela after Adoration, whom Amerman owns with his wife, Jerry, led from start to finish in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last October.

"I love Pat," Amerman said. "He comes out, he's so enthusiastic, upbeat, regardless of what horse he's on."

Valenzuela is popular with fans, especially those who favor exotic wagers. He never gives up on a horse and will try as hard to finish second or third as he does to finish first. The best recent example of that desire was his dramatic match-race victory over Julie Krone last summer at Del Mar, when his mount regained the lead to win by a nose. Fans seemed to root for Valenzuela in the hope that his latest comeback would stick. After races, he often gives his goggles to the children who line the railing from the track to the paddock.

Those close to him say he simply wants to be liked, a craving they say affected his relationships with women, including his current wife.

But there are many others who believe that Valenzuela has taken repeated advantage of a sport that has given him more chances than he deserves. One Hall of Fame trainer refused to ride Valenzuela on that principle alone. Some jockeys think Valenzuela's enthusiasm with owners is an act, accusing him of being a phony.

Many jockeys believe that Valenzuela has not been punished enough for his rough riding tactics. In a memorable incident years ago at Hollywood Park, veteran jockey Darrel McHargue phoned the stewards from the jockeys room after a race in which he thought he was interfered with by Valenzuela and angrily shouted, "You've got to do something about that guy."

Valenzuela may be running out of time to try to restart his career one more time. He no longer is the reedy, baby-faced rider who won the 1980 Santa Anita Derby not long after losing his apprentice allowance. His body is thicker, his hair receding.

Yet, in the words of Pedersen, the steward, Valenzuela was "riding better now than when he was younger." That opinion is shared by others who say that Valenzuela had progressed from a jockey known for his ability to get horses out of the gate quickly to one who has a keen sense of pace and has become a master of the intricacies of riding long-distance grass races, where saving ground is paramount.

But Valenzuela's career now comes second to putting his life in order.

"He's not a bad person," said Fletcher of the Winners Foundation. "He has a disease, like cancer or diabetes."

"Intellectually, I can understand what happened to Strawberry and Howe. Emotionally, I can't stand it," said Murray, the retired counselor. "We got two more years of sobriety out of Patrick. He set a record last year, and was nominated for an Eclipse Award. Look what we would have missed if he hadn't been reinstated two years ago. I think he should be pitied and loved more than he should be hated."

"The saddest thing is seeing a person with that ability and that personality fall through the holes," said the board's Wood. "I don't know of any more we could have done. Everyone did all they could, but the one who didn't is Patrick. It's sad to see it happen again."