06/15/2011 4:06PM

Valdivia joins exclusive club


Jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. after the Belmont.

It was a perfectly honest question, and John Velazquez was happy to oblige with a reply. When he won the Kentucky Derby aboard Animal Kingdom, wondered fellow rider Jose Valdivia, how did it feel?

“The last sixteenth everything got real quiet,” Velazquez told him. “Things started moving in slow motion, and all I could do was think that I was winning my Kentucky Derby.”

After Valdivia won the Belmont Stakes last Saturday aboard Ruler On Ice, Velazquez appeared alongside aboard Animal Kingdom.

“I had no idea what had happened to Johnny,” said Valdivia, referring to Animal Kingdom‘s bad stumble after the start. “But there he was, right beside me asking, ‘Well, did it feel the same?’ I told him I was still fighting off that other horse most of the last sixteenth, but when I knew I’d repelled the challenge, absolutely. In those last 10 yards everything started moving slowly and I couldn’t hear a thing.”

“Well done,” Velazquez replied. “Welcome to the club.”

Just as veteran journeyman Jesus Castanon received universal praise from his peers for finally breaking through winning this year’s Preakness on Shackleford, there was no begrudging Valdivia, at age 36, his first victory in an American classic.

Unlike Castanon, however, who was winning his first Grade 1 race, let alone a Triple Crown event, Valdivia has the kind of trophy case in which a Belmont bauble will feel right at home. He has made more than his share of headlines, wining such significant events as the Breeders' Cup Mile, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Santa Anita Derby, both the Del Mar Derby and Oaks, the Beverly D. at Arlington, the E.P. Taylor at Woodbine, and the Manhattan Handicap on Belmont day.

You would think a jockey who can rise to such prestigious, pressure-filled occasions over a significant span of time should be able to write his ticket anywhere. But as U.S. racing of the 21st century has cheapened across the board, with the inventory of the game dominated by claiming horses or horses about to be claiming horses, riders with the more refined skills exemplified by Valdivia find that the market is tight.

Valdivia called California home until March of 2010 when he moved East. After establishing a presence in Philadelphia, Delaware, and New Jersey, he penetrated the Aqueduct top 10 last winter. He is now committed to riding the New York-New Jersey circuit, and if you don’t believe him, check out his address.

“Brooklyn Heights,” Valdivia said, “with a view of the East River.”

He gives credit to his wife, Renee.

“She could not picture me shoveling snow in a driveway out in the suburbs of Long Island,” Valdivia said. “And she was right. Besides, we love the vibe of the city.”

Last Saturday night, the city returned the favor as the Valdivias celebrated the Belmont in a Manhattan restaurant with George and Lori Hall, the owners of Ruler On Ice. When they made their way to the door the other customers rose with an appreciative ovation.

“I wondered who it was for,” Valdivia said. “Renee goes, ‘It’s you, moron.’ I always figure it’s because of her we get attention. She’s tall. She's gorgeous. ‘Maybe he’s rich,’ they think, ‘or an actor we don’t recognize. There must be a reason she’s with him.’ ”

This time, at least, Valdivia could blame it on the Belmont, a race in which he has always wanted to ride.

“When I saw the entries come out I thought, ‘Wow, I’m one of only 12 riders in the world who get to ride in the Belmont Stakes,’ ” he said. “I was so proud, I didn’t care if I was 24-1 or a hundred to one.

“I loved this horse from day one when I first got on him last winter,” Valdivia said of Ruler On Ice. “He always did things with such ease. He’d come back from his works bucking and kicking and playing. But then when I started riding him in races, he’d turn for home and start lollygagging. He wouldn’t switch leads. He would be looking at the grandstand. And then when he pulled up he would barely take a deep breath. He just didn't have that killer instinct.”

After a win, two seconds, and a third, while Ruler On Ice flew well beneath the Triple Crown radar, trainer Kelly Breen decided to add blinkers for a workout at Monmouth on Friday, May 27, just 15 days before the Belmont.

“The work was real good,” Valdivia recalled. “But when I went to pull him up, he wheeled on me and did a one-eighty to the left, then did another one-eighty to the right, totally throwing my back out.”

Way out. Valdivia tried riding, but by that Memorial weekend Sunday he found himself in an emergency room hospital.

“I was losing feeling in my arm, my legs,” Valdivia said. “They thought I might have a herniated disc.”

Valdivia called a friend who worked for the Yankees, seeking advice on treatment. The friend pointed him to Dr. Louis Bisogni, the Yankees’ team chiropractor.

“He took a couple X-rays and came back into the room smiling, saying, 'Okay, we can straighten this out,' " Valdivia said. “He got me on my side, cracked me once, twice, and my pain went from an 11 on a scale of 10 to a four or a three.”

Valdivia was able to return to riding the weekend before the Belmont, and by the day of the race he was feeling better than he ever dared to dream.

“Dr. Bisogni left me a message Sunday night,” Valdivia said. “He asked if it was not too much trouble could I please give him a picture of the race to put it up on his wall next to the other guys.”

Those “other guys” being an impressive assortment of athletes, including just about any Yankee you want to name. Valdivia promptly left a return message.

“I told him that was the least I could do,” Valdivia said. “He knew it was a horse who did it to me. But what he didn’t know was that the horse who brought me into his office is the same horse who will be in that picture.”