01/30/2004 12:00AM

Vacant throne awaits a new king


ARCADIA, Calif. - The race for leading rider at Santa Anita this winter will have much more suspense than last year.

Through Thursday, Alex Solis led all riders with 29 wins, one more than Victor Espinoza and eight in front of Tyler Baze and Mike Smith.

Last year, they all trailed Patrick Valenzuela, who pulled clear to win 94 races, 25 more than David Flores.

But Valenzuela is no longer around to defend his title. He has been suspended since Jan. 23 for failing to submit for a drug test, which was part of the terms of his conditional license with the California Horse Racing Board.

Valenzuela's career has been plagued by substance abuse problems. His conditional license dictated that he be available for testing when requested by racing officials. He failed to show for a drug test on Jan. 22 after taking off his mount and telling stewards that he had twisted his ankle.

Since the suspension began, Valenzuela has not contacted stewards to ask for a hearing. One of his friends employed at Santa Anita says he has spoken to Valenzuela but was not sure if the rider would seek reinstatement.

The race to take Valenzuela's place will add a new contender next week when Hall of Famer Julie Krone returns after an absence of nearly two months. Krone suffered upper chest injuries in a two-horse spill at Hollywood Park on Dec. 12. Friday, she said she plans to resume working horses next week and could return to riding as quickly as Feb. 11.

Although she is unlikely to have enough time to win the Santa Anita title, Krone will attract top mounts, including Halfbridled, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2003.

Krone rode Halfbridled to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last October at Santa Anita. Halfbridled is scheduled to start in the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 15 and Krone has the mount.

Krone was the leading rider at Hollywood Park when she was injured.

"I'm very optimistic about the opportunity and the momentum that I built up," Krone said.

Solis has won three riding titles at this meeting, the most recent of which came in 2001-02, when he finished with 76 wins, six more than Kent Desormeaux. Solis considers himself a contender for the riding titles, but worries that small fields could hurt his chances.

"We still have a bunch of good riders here," Solis said. "It's still tough. There are no horses and there are tough jockeys."

Desormeaux had 16 winners through Thursday. He said he is actively seeking the title, which he has not won at this meeting since 1997-98.

"I still come with the intent to be leading rider," Desormeaux. "I want to be on top again."

Valenzuela's absence means the money he would have earned is up for grabs. Last year, Valenzuela's mounts earned $15,697,352. He won riding titles at all five of the major meetings in Southern California.

"That's a lot of money to chase," Desormeaux said.

Lion Heart breezes half-mile

Kentucky Derby hopeful Lion Heart had his first workout of the year on Friday, breezing a half-mile in 48.60 seconds.

Lion Heart worked a distance closer to 4 1/2 furlongs. He broke off well before the half-mile pole and finished strongly. Trainer Patrick Biancone said he timed Lion Heart in 48.20 seconds.

"He was keen at the start but after a furlong he relaxed well," Biancone said. "He galloped out strongly and that's a good sign."

Unbeaten in three starts, Lion Heart has not started since winning the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 20. He races for Michael Tabor.

Lion Heart is being pointed for the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes over a mile on March 6. The race is on the schedule of St Averil and Lucky Pulpit, the first two finishers of the Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 17, and Quinton's Gold Rush, the winner of a maiden race on Jan. 18.

Toccet awaits Strub

Toccet, supplemented to Saturday's San Antonio Handicap for $5,000 but not entered, is being pointed for the $300,000 Strub Stakes against fellow 4-year-olds, trainer John Scanlan said.

Friday, Toccet worked six furlongs in 1:15.40. Toccet finished second to During in the San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes on Jan. 10. During also will run in the Strub.

The Strub Stakes, run at 1 1/8 miles, will likely produce starters for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6. Other Strub probables are Buckland Manor, Buddy Gil, Domestic Dispute, Eye of the Tiger, Formal Attire, Midas Eyes, and Spensive.

'Paradise' moves to Robbins barn

Taste of Paradise, who was purchased for $425,000 by David Bloom at the Barretts January mixed sale last Monday, has been transferred to trainer Jay Robbins.

Taste of Paradise, 5, was entered in the sale to dissolve a partnership that included Bloom. After the sale, the horse was moved from the John Sadler stable.

Taste of Paradise has not started since finishing fifth in the Seabiscuit Handicap last October at Santa Anita. Last August, Taste of Paradise pulled an upset at 37-1 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.

Robbins, who trains a small stable, is best known as the trainer of Tiznow, the 2000 Horse of the Year.

Crazy Ensign retired

Crazy Ensign, the winner of two minor stakes last year and a Group 1 in Argentina in 1999 and 2000, has been retired after suffering a suspensory injury, trainer Richard Mandella said.

Mandella said she will be sold, adding it was unclear whether Crazy Ensign would be sold privately or at a sale in the fall.

Crazy Ensign, 8, won 9 of 30 starts and $563,557. Her two stakes wins in 2003 were the TOC and CTT Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on turf last August at Del Mar and the Avigaition Stakes over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Santa Anita on Nov. 9. She was third in two Grade 1 stakes in the United States - the 2002 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park and the Yellow Ribbon Stakes last September at Santa Anita.

In Argentina, Crazy Ensign won Group 1 races on turf and on dirt.