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Valenzuela: A lifetime of second chances
When you think about the second acts in American lives − the ones that debunk what F. Scott Fitzgerald said about second acts − the names Richard Nixon, long ago, and Eliot Spitzer, now in our face, spring to mind. But this is not about second acts, or even third or fourth acts. It is about Pat Valenzuela, whom I’ve been watching ride since 1982, four years after he started. I’ve lost track of how many acts the frequently troubled Valenzuela has played out in his Greek tragedy of a career. Valenzuela has lost count, too.
“The important thing is that I’m back in California, close to my family, and I’m getting the chance to do what I’ve always loved to do − ride horses and win races,” said Valenzuela, 48. “I’ve been blessed. The good Lord has me back in his fold, and I hope I can make the best of it.”
The word resilient should have Valenzuela’s picture next to it in the dictionary. By one estimate, he has lost almost seven years of riding because of suspensions and unexplained absences, most of them attributed to drug abuse. He has persisted in throwing away his lucrative career, but the trainers who hire him to ride their best horses keep tossing it back. There is an undying love for Valenzuela on the backstretches of virtually every racetrack he works. His apologies are accepted, his promises to do better are seldom met with a roll of the eyes.
You would be hard-pressed to find a horseman who harbored a grudge, or a jockey agent who really disliked Valenzuela, including some who have been saddled, more than once, with cleaning up the messes he has left for them.
Trainer Vladimir Cerin said he used Valenzuela nine times at Del Mar this summer and won four races with him.
“It’s easy to be judgmental of other people,” Cerin said. “Pat’s a great athlete and a great rider. I think he’s one of the best of all-time. He’s so positive. He thinks he can win every race he rides in. It’s so refreshing to be working with somebody like that.”
Daily Racing Form contacted at least seven jockeys, both retired and currently riding in California, and only one was willing to give an on-the-record opinion on Valenzuela’s return.
“There’s no upside to commenting,” said one veteran rider, who didn’t want his name used. “You either make an enemy out of Pat, which isn’t necessarily the best thing, or you make an enemy out of those in the [jockeys’] room who aren’t in favor of him coming back.”
Paul Atkinson, who has been riding in Southern California for about 20 years, was willing to be quoted.
“I might be the odd man out in this,” he said, “but I think somebody’s private life is his own business. Pat’s had his troubles off track, but he hasn’t brought them to the track when he rides, that I can see. When he’s not in shape to ride, he doesn’t show up. Every time he’s here to ride, he brings his ‘A’ game, and that’s all I care about. Now, if we’re talking about all the chances he’s had, that’s another matter. Giving him all those chances has been an embarrassment to racing, in my opinion.”
Having ridden in a stakes race at Delta Downs, Valenzuela was already licensed in Louisiana when his California license was suspended in December 2007 following a DUI arrest and permanently revoked the following September. When Valenzuela came to ride in Louisiana in 2008, the state was obligated to honor the balance of his existing license, according to Roy Wood, the state steward.
After a couple of years of riding in Louisiana, Valenzuela returned this year to California and successfully petitioned the racing board to reinstate him from his apparent lifetime ban. Valenzuela has spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal help − Neil Papiano among them − but this time he showed up unescorted, hat in hand and, as usual, his heart on his sleeve.
One of his trump cards over the years has been that the California Horse Racing Board, whenever it is reconstituted, draws new members, commissioners who are unexposed to the Valenzuela shenanigans of seasons past. They are more likely to be lenient than commissioners who are weary of Valenzuela and his problems. This time Valenzuela wrote a couple of his own letters; his agent, Tom Knust, also took up a pen; and for ballast there was a recommendation for reinstatement from Wood, who, interestingly, was the executive director of the California board for many of the years it was penalizing Valenzuela.
Two incidents impressed Wood regarding Valenzuela’s sincerity in Louisiana. One Thanksgiving weekend, Valenzuela’s car broke down returning from Shreveport to New Orleans, and he called to get off his mounts at the Fair Grounds. Another time, after riding in New Mexico, he hurried back to Louisiana Downs, just to ride a 15-1 shot in the last race, for $5,000 claimers.
“In the past, Pat might have been a no-show both times, with no explanation,” Wood said.
Wood said Valenzuela was tested about 120 times for drugs during his Louisiana stay and was required to take a Breathalyzer every day he rode. He passed all the tests.
“Pat’s maturity improved by leaps and bounds after he came here,” Wood said. “He’s one of the most gifted athletes I ever saw. A natural. And besides that, he has such a great personality. But for his inner demons, he could have become one of the great ambassadors for the sport.”
In July, the California commission issued Valenzuela a probationary license. Keith Brackpool, chairman of the California board, said Wood’s evaluation was a factor in the decision.
That Wood would go to bat for Valenzuela is actually not that surprising. Valenzuela’s supporters always seem to emerge from the woodwork, unannounced and unsolicited. Years ago, trainer Bob Baffert went to a hearing to testify on behalf of Valenzuela.
“I did it on my own,” Baffert said at the time. “This poor guy, I’m behind him. He’s not a gangster, not a punk. I don’t consider him a black eye for racing. He’s an addictive personality who needs somebody to stay on top of him. Everyone knew [a relapse] was going to happen. At least he came forward this time and said, ‘I messed up.’ ”
Doug O’Neill, the leading trainer at Del Mar this summer, also supported Valenzuela with mounts, and at meet’s end Valenzuela was in third place with 29 wins in the standings behind Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. Valenzuela’s go-to horse was J P’s Gusto, trained by David Hofmans, and together they won the Best Pal Stakes and the Del Mar Futurity.
“That was the horse that made our summer,” Knust said.
J P’s Gusto, who had won four straight races, ran second behind Jaycito in the Norfolk Stakes at Hollywood Park, but the colt is still headed, with Valenzuela, for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6. Valenzuela will have at least three other Breeders’ Cup mounts on Nov. 5-6: Dakota Phone in the Dirt Mile, Courageous Cat in the Mile on grass, and Quick Enough in the Turf Sprint. Valenzuela has won seven Breeders’ Cup races and twice has won a pair of them on the same day, but it has been a long time between drinks: His last win came in 2003, and he hasn’t ridden in a Breeders’ Cup since 2006.
While the Breeders’ Cup helped land Valenzuela in the spotlight, it was also one of the nadirs of his career. A couple of weeks before the 1989 Classic, having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with Sunday Silence, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine and was suspended. Chris McCarron took over at Gulfstream Park as Sunday Silence beat Easy Goer to clinch Horse of the Year honors.
It was significant this month when Valenzuela was called to Keeneland to ride Courageous Cat (who would finish third) in the Shadwell Turf Mile, a $600,000 race, for owners Marty and Pam Wygod and trainer Bill Mott. Valenzuela, who had never ridden the colt before, has historically gone off the rails when he has been out of town. In 1991, he was supposed to be at Laurel Park to ride Sunny Blossom in the $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash. He took a red-eye flight from California to Maryland, and although in town, was AWOL at the track. Dan Kenny, one of the owners of Sunny Blossom, still seethes.
“A number of my partners made the trip, at considerable expense,” Kenny wrote on one of his recent blogs. “An hour before the race, [Valenzuela] finally called the stewards and claimed to be sick.”
Kenny, now a Kentucky bloodstock agent, said the substitute jockey didn’t understand the trainer’s instructions and rode Sunny Blossom poorly, and the horse came out of the race lame and didn’t return to the track for several months.
“No matter how many times [Valenzuela] has burned the racing population, there’s a tendency to consider his misdeeds victimless,” Kenny wrote. “I don’t think so. . . . [After that race], not a peep out of him. . . . I am not interested in retribution after all these years. But there is something called restitution, and I challenge Pat to make good on his many indiscretions and donate a significant sum to the Winners Foundation,” Kenny wrote, referring to a counseling organization for substance abusers in racing.
“[Valenzuela] is making money now,” he wrote. “Ten grand ought to do it.”
During our interview, Valenzuela sidestepped questions about his sobriety, but in his hearing before the California racing board’s license review committee, he said he had been clean since May 15, 2008. Asked by the committee about his riding infractions and penalties for fighting with fellow jockeys, he said: “I thought the world was out to get me at the time. I am a much more patient man and a much more mature man.”
Hofmans, the trainer of J P’s Gusto, agrees. One of Valenzuela’s Breeders’ Cup wins was with Adoration, a filly Hofmans trained, at 40-1 in the 2003 Distaff.
“Pat seems more down to earth now,” Hofmans said. “He’s not hyper like he used to be. He’s more evenly keeled.”
Joe Talamo won two races with J P’s Gusto earlier in the year, but he broke his wrist, and Valenzuela, after acquiring the mount, will retain it for the Breeders’ Cup.
“I was very comfortable with putting Pat on my horse,” Hofmans said. “I think the horse fits Pat’s riding style.”
An exception to most trainers these days is Richard Mandella, who says Valenzuela is not “on the list of jockeys I use.”
“I support the system, and I think in this case the system has failed,” Mandella said. “When people can milk the system, there is a problem. There’s a certain environment I like to keep myself in, and [Valenzuela] has not been part of that environment. I wish him the best, and I hope he stays clean. There’s no question that he’s a great rider.”
Valenzuela has won more than 4,100 races, and his mounts have earned about $156 million. From a family of jockeys − his uncle, the late Milo Valenzuela, is in the Racing Hall of Fame − he won the Santa Anita Derby with Codex when he was 17. He was voted winner of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1982, and there has been a suggestion recently that he should be placed on a future Hall of Fame ballot. That would stir controversy, much like the firestorm in baseball that surrounds many players who are Hall of Fame-deserving based on their raw accomplishments but have been tarnished because they were at the forefront of the so-called steroids era.
This is the third time around for Knust, the agent, and Valenzuela. They broke up once because Knust was also booking mounts for Corey Nakatani, and, according to Knust, Valenzuela was uncomfortable with such a situation.
“The last time Pat got into trouble in California, it was over a DUI,” Knust said. “That wasn’t good, but at least it wasn’t drugs. He’s riding very confidently now. He’s always known how to ride, and the reception has been positive. He was building his business in Louisiana just about the time he was able to return to California. He was headed toward the top in Louisiana. It takes a while to be the number one rider when you go into a place from another part of the country. I think he knows what the stakes are at this stage in his life. He wants to ride another 10 years, and if he’s going to do that at this level, he can’t afford another slip.”
Valenzuela is in the steam room almost every racing day, trying to keep his weight down. He’s at 120 pounds now, which is too heavy, but hopes to be at 118 by the time Santa Anita opens the day after Christmas.
“I’m almost 50,” he said. “It’s not that easy taking off weight anymore.”
Valenzuela said he enjoyed riding at the Fair Grounds and Louisiana Downs, with an occasional visit to other Louisiana tracks for stakes races. One of the connections he made at the Fair Grounds, which is standing him in good stead as the Breeders’ Cup approaches, is with the powerful Bill Mott barn. Going into October, Mott ranked sixth on the national trainers’ money list.
“When I first went to Louisiana,” Valenzuela said, “I always had it in the back of my mind that I’d be back in California. That’s where I’ve had most of my success. And my mother and some of my children are in California. I realized how important they all are when I was in Louisiana.”
Twice divorced, Valenzuela is engaged to be married but has no wedding date. He has four daughters between the ages of 17 and 26 and was on hand recently when one of them was married.
A retired steward, Pete Pedersen, marvels at how Valenzuela continues to reinvent himself. When somebody walked into Pedersen’s office once and commented about how his cluttered desk looked like the workplace of a busy man, he said: “Half of the paperwork you see pertains to Pat Valenzuela.”
It was on Pedersen’s watch when Valenzuela’s cocaine positive prevented him from riding Sunday Silence in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup.
“Despite all his problems, Pat has always been unbelievably optimistic, and that rubs off on the owners and trainers he works for,” Pedersen said. “Some riders may complain about not being comfortable riding against him, for safety reasons, but the truth is, he is not really a ‘trouble’ rider. Charlie Whittingham said that one of the best things about Pat is that he always knows where his horse was, and where the other horses around him are. For a guy who rides very aggressively, he really doesn’t get in that much trouble.”
One agent, Vince De Gregory, is skeptical about how successful Valenzuela will be for what might be finally called his last hurrah.
“If other jockeys did what Pat did for so many times and didn’t have the big name, Pat Valenzuela, they wouldn’t have been reinstated time and again like Pat has been,” said De Gregory, who never had Valenzuela’s book. “I don’t think he will mess up again. I think he’s finally learned his lesson, but the riding colony is steeped with many talented young jockeys now, and I think most of the stables will go to these young guys instead of Pat. He’ll do well and make a good living, but he’ll never be a leading rider again.”
Valenzuela has been written off before. He was suspended for almost all of 2000 and 2001, but there he was, less than two years later, winning titles at all five major meets in Southern California, which hadn’t been achieved since Chris McCarron 20 years before. Nick Cosato was his agent then. Like Knust, Cosato worked for Valenzuela three separate times.
“When Pat’s ready to ride, he’s a great rider,” Cosato said recently. “I still think he’s one of the best who ever put on a pair of boots.”