11/01/2001 12:00AM

Val-div-i-a: Pronounced 'win-ner'

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ARCADIA, Calif. - One week after his triumphant ride aboard Val Royal in the Breeders' Cup Mile, Jose Valdivia Jr. finds himself in the thick of the California Cup program at Santa Anita Park with six rides, including the longshot Ben Saw San in the Cal Cup Classic. Valdivia is focused on the task, but he certainly can be forgiven if his mind wanders back to that fairy tale afternoon at Belmont Park.

First, there was the surreal scene early in the day, when Valdivia and his fellow Breeders' Cup riders assembled on the turf course, carrying an array of international flags, as the New York Fire Dept. bagpipers squeezed out "Amazing Grace" and fireworks filled the air.

The Mile itself was thrilling enough. Val Royal had Valdivia grinning from the quarter pole to the wire as they ran down Forbidden Apple to win going away. As if that wasn't enough, there to greet him in the winner's circle were two of his favorite wise guys from his favorite show, "The Sopranos." Does it get better than this?

"Fugheddaboudit!" Valdivia said, copping his best Noo Yawk attitude. "I couldn't believe it. There's Paulie and Christopher. And at the party later, there's Federico, the hit man they brought from Italy!"

Valdivia was breathing rare air. Everything was new. Winning his first Breeders' Cup race, sharing the bill with guys named Bailey, McCarron, and Kinane - it was almost too much to believe. But then, just about everything about Jose Valdivia's career has been a bonus, from the lean times to fat city. Riding racehorses was about the last thing in the world he was meant to do.

As a child growing up near Lima, Peru, the son of one famous jockey and nephew of another, Valdivia suffered from chronic asthma. He would sleep in a fetal position, trying to ease the pressure on his young lungs. His heart-broken father would warm Jose's soda pop with hot water so the cold would not burn his chest. He could never play with his friends.

"In our family pictures, I'm always with the adults, while my cousins are off running around," Valdivia said this week in the Santa Anita jockeys' room. "At least once a year I had to go to the hospital. The doctors told my parents that it was a miracle their kid was still living."

Valdivia was 14 when his family moved from Peru to Florida. Within a couple of years, his asthma abated. He began to play soccer and tennis, swim, and ride horses. Basically, he was making up for lost time.

As a professional jockey, Valdivia has traveled far and wide in a search for his best chance to work. Too often, though, he has been overlooked in favor of the established names. If it bothers him, he hides it well.

"My name has been pronounced so many ways, I can't keep track," said Valdivia, who turns 27 in December. "A guy in Kentucky asked me if I was related to those Velveeta people who make the cheese. I said sure. You ride me and I'll get you all the cheese you want.

"I've learned though the years that everybody's got to pay their dues," he went on. "There have been very few riders who were successful as an apprentice, who caught on and kept on going, guys like McCarron, Desormeaux, P-Val. But look at Bailey. He was an unknown until his mid-thirties, and he's always been a good rider."

Even before Val Royal's heroics in the Mile, the 2001 season was Valdivia's best year ever. Business began to click in August when he teamed with veteran agent Craig O'Bryan, while his ongoing connection with the stable of Ron and Susie Anson continued to serve as his bread and butter. Then along came Julio Canani, a fellow Peruvian, and the chance to ride Val Royal.

"This is not an easy horse to work," Canani said. "I got riders say they don't want to work him. Jose gets along with him."

Racing is a hard game with fleeting loyalties. Journeymen riders work horses all the time, then find themselves replaced by big names when the overnight appears. Valdivia knows how lucky he is to have Canani in his corner, along with Val Royal's owner, David Milch.

"Julio told me early, when Val Royal was just starting back, if I stick with him in the morning, I would ride him in the afternoon," Valdivia said. "He has kept his word."

Officer upsetter?

Valdivia rides for a variety of stables in the Cal Cup, including Mike Machowsky, Craig Lewis, Nick Canani, and Armando Lage. And if the real Officer does not show up in the Cal Cup Juvenile, he likes the chances of his mount in that one, Debonair Joe.

"He drew a great post and I know he can get the distance," Valdivia said. "Who knows what to think of Officer in there?"

There won't be quite the pageantry at Santa Anita on Saturday for the Cal Cup. Certainly nothing to match the flag-waving spectacle at Belmont. A week ago, Valdivia was the guy carrying the colors of Peru, for his father, and Chile, for his mother, along with Old Glory. That was for him.

"My grandfather always told me, 'You are from the country that feeds you,' " Valdivia said.

As hard as he works, he deserves to eat well.