01/30/2008 1:00AM

Valdivia carries extra weight


ARCADIA, Calif. - At the top of the stretch in last Saturday's Sunshine Millions Classic, Buzzards Bay and jockey Jose Valdivia took what appeared to be a brief lead in the million-dollar event, igniting memories of the great promise once held for the handsome chestnut.

Valdivia himself, freighted with personal torment, was competing for the first time in more than a week. But somehow, head down and driving, he was focused on the job and doing it well. Between the two of them, horse and rider, there was enough drama to fill the front page. Do you believe in miracles?

Not that day. Buzzards Bay fired and fell back, just as he has been doing lately in stakes company, and settled for fifth place behind Go Between. As for Valdivia, once free of the adrenal rush that accompanies most heated stretch runs, the awful reality of his desperately sick baby girl in a nearby Pasadena hospital returned like a bad meal. Shoulders slumped, eyes downcast, he walked back to the room. There were two more horses to ride.

First, full disclosure. As the father of a daughter, age 2 years and 3 months, this reporter would rather deal with issues like synthetic track failures, steroid abuse, or muck pile disposal than brush close to the emotional trauma being faced by Valdivia and his family. There but for the grace of God, and all that jazz.

What Siena Valdivia is going through, at the age of 18 months, is just plain awful. Hit with viral pneumonia and then a collapsed lung, she was ventilated, sedated, and listed in critical condition. She teetered for more than a week in the intensive care unit before even a pinprick of hopeful light appeared at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

On top of it all, this should have been a time of great celebration. It was just past midnight, Tuesday, Jan. 15, when Renee Valdivia, a collegiate athlete herself, delivered into this world their second child, a son, with a graceful, textbook birth.

"Three pushes and he was here," praised Jose.

The proud new father went home that afternoon, only to be confronted by the sight of his little girl - a big sister now - subdued and wheezing. Their pediatrician needed only to hear Siena breathe over the phone to know it was serious.

"I had to call Renee, in the same hospital, and tell her I was on my way to the emergency room with Siena," Valdivia said. "As a mother who just gave birth, can you imagine what she was going through?

"Siena was breathing so hard," Valdivia went on. "They put a nebulizer mask on her, which she fought at first, so she was communicating to us with her eyes. Then they had to put her on the ventilator, and insert a tube down her throat. Seeing that was so hard, but I knew I had to be strong, for my wife and for her.

"The next day her lung collapsed," he continued. "She really took a dive. All of her vitals came crashing down. They inserted a chest tube and the lung inflated. But they were honest with us. Her lungs were so sick, there was a very good chance it would happen again. I felt like the world was crashing down on me."

Valdivia, who won the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile aboard Val Royal, is the son and nephew of well-known jockeys. As a child in his native Peru he was severely asthmatic, which restricted his physical activity and even sent him to the hospital for emergency treatment.

"Now I can appreciate how hard it was for my father to focus on the riding, and at the same time worry about me," Valdivia said. "I was pretty sick. But I was never close to what Siena is going through."

After the virus did its damage, Siena's ravaged lungs were left to heal. On the Thursday before the Sunshine Millions, 10 days after the ordeal began, Siena was allowed to gently emerge from sedation.

"I was finally able to see her eyes," Valdivia said. "She was just so exhausted. She acknowledged me, and her mother. But I knew it wasn't really her. I know how feisty she is."

Too feisty, as it turned out. Siena began to rally physically, but it was too much too soon. Continued sedation will be required while she continues to heal.

"She's waking up and not used to having all those things attached to her," Valdivia said. "And they can't risk letting the breathing tube be moved. We've hit a plateau, but at least there is hope."

The Valdivias were married seven years ago, first in a civil ceremony in Siena, Italy. While touring the art-rich city, Jose grew to admire the work of Luca Signorelli, a student of Michelangelo.

"I said to Renee, if we ever had a son, I'd like to name him Luca Antonio, which is my middle name," Valdivia said. "Now we're getting friends who call, who heard about Siena, and then they say, 'Wasn't Renee due?' Their reaction is, like, 'I'm so sorry. Congratulations.'

"You know what's going to happen," Valdivia added. "Luca is gonna grow up and say, 'Can you believe it? My sister upstaged my birth. How do you do that?' "