09/16/2008 11:00PM

Valenzuela hopes to ride back to top

Benoit & Associates
"I just want to be able to be in good standing in California, so I can ride all over the country, participate in all the big races." - Patrick Valenzuela

At the beginning of the year, there was speculation that jockey Patrick Valenzuela might be out of racing for good. His conditional license in California had been revoked in late December following a drunken driving charge, and he was not riding. He launched a comeback at Louisiana Downs in June and has steadily gained momentum. On Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board is scheduled to consider his request for reinstatement during an executive session, just as Valenzuela opens the race week three wins shy of his 4,000th career victory.

Valenzuela also is preparing to ride Mambo Meister in the Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby for trainer Phil Gleaves on Saturday, his first mount in the race since 1996.

He hopes the Super Derby mount will rekindle his career on a national scale, but knows that goal is tied to what happens with his license bid out West.

"I just hope the people of California know how bad I want to ride, not only in California but I want to participate on the top level of racing all across the country," Valenzuela, 45, said. "I've gotten calls to go to Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Derby. I've gotten opportunities to go to Delaware. I've gotten opportunities to go everywhere else, but I cannot do so because I have a suspended California license. I just want to be able to be in good standing in California, so I can ride all over the country, participate in all the big races."

Valenzuela may or may not move closer to that goal Thursday. A hearing officer in his California case has recommended that his license not be reinstated, according to a document provided by the CHRB on Tuesday. However, the decision lies with the board, which can accept, reject, or modify the recommendation, according to CHRB spokesman Mike Marten.

Neil Papiano, an attorney representing Valenzuela, did not return a call seeking an update on the case.

Valenzuela, whose career has been repeatedly disrupted by substance-abuse problems, has a talent for race riding that has secured him mounts on some of the sport's greatest horses. In 1989, he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Super Derby with Sunday Silence. Valenzuela also has seven Breeders' Cup victories, including Arazi's stirring performance in the 1991 Juvenile. In more recent times, the jockey swept all five major riding titles in Southern California in 2003, success that has helped lift him to a lifetime record of 3,997 Thoroughbred wins and $150omillion in mount earnings.

The latest chapter in Valenzuela's career finds him in a surprising locale, Bossier City, La. Valenzuela had been licensed in the state to ride in the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs last Dec. 7, which enabled him to resume his career at Louisiana Downs.

"He was a licensee in good standing in Louisiana prior to the revocation of his conditional license in California, and in Louisiana there's case precedent that a track cannot exclude a licensee in good standing," said Charles Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission.

"He has done remarkably well. He has not violated any of the stringent rules that Louisiana has."

Valenzuela's comeback has been a slow and steady one. He has had to work to reduce his weight and work to build relationships with owners and trainers on a circuit that is brand new to him. Over the past month, Valenzuela has made real inroads in both areas.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't know what was going to happen after December," he said. "It's a privilege to have a jockey's license and to be here in Louisiana. I'm very grateful for it.

"At first, I think people here were leery of me. They knew I was going back and forth to California for hearings and for my daughter's graduation. They thought I wasn't really serious. Now, I've gotten the confidence of the horsemen. They know I'm serious. Things are really picking up here."

Valenzuela ranks 10th in the standings at Louisiana Downs, where he has won 25 of 177 starts. He has begun teaming on a regular basis with such high-percentage horsemen as Pat Mouton and Morris Nicks, for whom he is scheduled to ride Pleasantly Blessed in the $100,000 River Cities on the Super Derby undercard Saturday.

"He's been with the best, rode with the best, and can compete with the best," Nicks said.

That is precisely why Gleaves wanted Valenzuela on Mambo Meister, an overnight stakes winner at Calder Race Course who will start as a contender in a probable field of 10 on Saturday.

"I used Pat extensively when I was based in California," said Gleaves, who won the Super Derby in 1986 with Wise Times. "Everybody knows he's as talented a jock as there ever has been, and when I saw that he was riding exclusively at Louisiana Downs, I said, 'Well, I've got to try my best to see if I can get Pat.' He's just one of the all-time great riders, especially in the big-money races like this, and I have every confidence in him."

Valenzuela hopes there will be more big-money races in his future. Following the close of the Louisiana Downs meet, he said he plans to ride at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.

"I want to go there because they have some good horses that come out of Fair Grounds and participate in the Kentucky Derby and other big races across the country," he said.

Valenzuela makes his return to the big time Saturday in the Super Derby.