11/19/2008 12:00AM

Troubled jockeys start meet strong


The mere fact that Patrick Valenzuela and Francisco Torres both were riding at Fair Grounds seemed almost newsworthy. Who knew that after one racing week the pair would be one-two in the jockey standings?

Valenzuela won stakes races last Friday and Saturday for trainer Bill Mott, and his three wins were more than any other rider heading into the Fair Grounds' card Sunday. That's when Torres stepped up, winning four of the afternoon's 10 races to take a 5-4 lead over Valenzuela after three days of racing in New Orleans.

Valenzuela, every racing fan knows. Kentucky Derby winner, top California jockey - and seemingly in and out of trouble for as long as anyone can remember. Firmly denied a license in California at this time last year, Valenzuela had an existing license in Louisiana and was supposed to ride last season at Fair Grounds but never showed up.

"I had too many legal issues to resolve," Valenzuela said last week after his first-ever win at Fair Grounds.

Valenzuela eventually made his comeback at Louisiana Downs, where he rode 31 winners from 252 mounts, but went 0 for 11 in stakes races, making his stakes double last weekend all the more extraordinary.

Torres, a native Chicagoan, has unfortunately traveled many of the same paths as Valenzuela, only on a less well-documented scale. In and out of rehab and racing in recent years, Torres had not ridden in some eight months when he started taking calls last April at Louisiana Downs. During the meet there that concluded Oct. 18, Torres rode 67 winners from 401 mounts, and, like Valenzuela, he had never ridden regularly at Fair Grounds until this season.

"It felt awesome Sunday," Torres said when reached by phone. "To be truthful, it was hard to believe I won four. I was coming into a meet with kind of mediocre business. New surroundings, new racetrack."

Torres, 39, already has taken note of the long Fair Grounds stretch, far different from the Louisiana Downs configuration.

"You got to ride differently," he said. "You got to be more patient."

Patience will help in other areas, too. Torres looks good and feels good right now and said he is out before dawn almost every morning to work horses and show himself to trainers. But everyone knows his history - and Valenzuela's, too - a history that drags along like a shadow.

"The way I look at it is he's obviously a very talented rider, but there are just too many other riders out there that I owe more to than I do to him," said trainer Mike Stidham, who rode Torres in Chicago before his last round of problems. "Believe me, I wish him nothing but the best."

Torres, expanding his business, landed a stakes mount for trainer Steve Klesaris on Saturday, but it is going to take more than a weekend of success for both him and Valenzuela to really take off.

"For me showing up every morning at 5 or 5:30, just for them to see the white of my eyes, that's a big deal," Torres said. "Trust is a big deal with what's happening here."

Mott barn goes 3 for 4 in first week

Look out New Orleans - Bill Mott is making his second start over the racetrack.

After a long absence, Mott moved a 20-odd string of horses back into Fair Grounds last season and had a decent, if fairly quiet, meet, winning 13 races from 66 starters. But Mott did not get into racing's Hall of Fame for smiling at the camera. This year's Mott string won 3 of 4 starts during the meet's first three days, and after failing to win a single stakes race during the 2007-2008 meet, Mott captured Friday's Blushing K.D. with Stormy West and Saturday's Mr. Sulu with Desert Wheat.

Heading up Mott's Fair Grounds operation, which will house about 25 horses when all have arrived here, is Rodolphe Brisset, a Frenchman who came to the United States to work for Patrick Biancone in March 2005. Brisset, close friends with jockey Julien Leparoux, rode races in France, and after departing the Biancone operation, sought to expand his horizons by hooking on with a more traditional American outfit.

"I think it's good to see everything you can," Brisset said. "Bill, he's very open. Any idea I have, he'll talk about it."

Desert Wheat won Saturday despite the race being rained from turf to dirt, and he will come back next month in the Champion's Day Turf. Stormy West also won an off-the-turf stakes, but her next race has yet to be determined.

"She looks good, but she needs some time," Brisset said. "There are plenty of races for her at this meet."

Invisible Lee tops entry-level allowance

There are plenty of horses for the only allowance race on Friday's 10-race card - a full field of 12 plus two also-eligibles was entered - but this is an entry-level allowance, and the real question is which one will step forward and improve.

The race is carded for about 1 1/16 miles on turf, and provided it remains on grass, the prime candidates to deliver a winning performance are Whywhy Cat, Holy Anthem, and Invisible Lee, with a nod toward the latter horse.

Purchased privately out of Maryland, Invisible Lee made his first five starts on turf before racing over the Keeneland Polytrack on Oct. 18 in his first start for trainer Mike Stidham. A dead closer over Mid-Atlantic turf courses, Invisible Lee disputed the early pace before fading to sixth.

"We were hoping he wouldn't get so far back, and next thing you know he's head and head for the lead," Stidham said.

Closing tactics generally are the way to go on the Fair Grounds grass, and a return to that running style could give a win to the Stidham barn, which had 5 seconds and 2 thirds but no victories from 9 opening-week runners.

Klesaris enters two in Old Hickory

Trainer Steve Klesaris swings into action with his 2-year-olds this weekend at Fair Grounds, where he entered both Forty Thieves and Sunday Blitz in the Old Hickory Stakes. Cisco Torres was named to ride both halves of the Puglisi Racing-owned entry, meaning one of the horses will likely scratch. The 5 1/2-furlong Old Hickory drew seven other entrants and shares top billing on Saturday's card with the Pontalba, a sprint race for 2-year-old fillies.