07/21/2002 11:00PM

Valenzuela renewed for Del Mar

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Patrick Valenzuela will turn 40 in October, but he showed the zest of an eager apprentice when he won the riding title at the Hollywood Park meeting that ended Sunday.

He says that having a chance to ride again after eight suspensions - many for substance-abuse violations - can do that to a person's attitude.

On Wednesday, Valenzuela will continue a seven-month comeback when he rides at Del Mar for the first time since 1997. Although he has not won a Del Mar riding title since 1991, it might not be a good idea to bet against him this year.

"I feel like a young man at the start of my career," he said over the weekend.

Since December, Valenzuela has been rebuilding a career that was interrupted in February 2000 for nearly 22 months after his most recent substance-abuse violation. Throughout the year, he has had to prove himself to horsemen.

"I wanted to see if he really wanted to be back," said trainer Doug O'Neill. "After a month or two, he showed that he did."

Following a slow start at Santa Anita - he had six winners in the first seven weeks - Valenzuela finished a respectable sixth for the winter-spring meeting with 42 wins.

At Hollywood Park, he was a factor from the start and finished with a flourish over the weekend. Valenzuela rode three winners on Saturday, four on Sunday. He finished with 74 winners, 13 more than the second-place rider, Alex Solis. It was his first riding title at Hollywood Park since the autumn of 1991.

"It feels awesome," Valenzuela said. "I've just got to keep working. It's a dream come true."

A year ago, Valenzuela was driving a truck for the beer distributorship of horse owner Bob Lewis. He only dreamed of riding this summer.

"I expected to be here, but I didn't know I'd be leading rider," he said.

Support teams have played an important role in Valenzuela's comeback.

At the racetrack, Valenzuela's team includes agent Nick Cosato, attorney Don Calabria, and Don Murray, the executive director of the Winner's Foundation, which works with people in racing who have substance-abuse problems. All three were behind Valenzuela before he was relicensed by the California Horse Racing Board last December before the Santa Anita meeting.

"It's all kind of a team effort," Valenzuela said. "But my daughters are my biggest rooters."

Michelle, Kristina, Elizabeth, and Brianna, who range in age from 18 to 8, have split their time this year between California and Durango, Colo., where their mother lives. They have been with Valenzuela this summer and will be with him at Del Mar.

"I've always had time with my girls, but it means so much more today," Valenzuela said. "I can get in touch with those feelings emotionally. I can really appreciate it and not take it for granted like I did in the past."

Valenzuela won the Kentucky Derby with Sunday Silence in 1989 but was suspended that fall, and Sunday Silence won the Breeders' Cup Classic under Chris McCarron. The 1989 suspension was his second. He was suspended again in December of 1990 but returned in the spring and rode regularly until 1994. Since then, he has been unable to ride for more than two years without a suspension.

Valenzuela said he did not feel animosity in the jockeys' room when he returned last winter.

"If there was resentment, no one showed it," Valenzuela said. "Everyone welcomed me back. I'm privileged to be riding with these guys. We've got some great young riders coming up and some great riders that have been here for years."

At his age, Valenzuela is in the middle, younger than Laffit Pincay Jr., 55, but nearly a decade older than riders like Victor Espinoza and Garrett Gomez.

He has earned the respect of owners, particularly Bernie Schiappa, who co-owns Ladies Din. On May 27, Valenzuela won the $500,000 Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile on Ladies Din, his richest win of the year.

"He's on a mission," Schiappa said. "He'll be the leading jockey at Del Mar. He brings horses to another level and believes in everything he rides.

"He's hit the bottom and he doesn't want to let his family down again. I think he will be an icon and show that he can overcome addiction. You want him on your horse."

Del Mar will give Valenzuela a chance to find the stakes mounts needed in the build-up for the Breeders' Cup. Southern Californians have watched his comeback this year, and success at the Breeders' Cup would serve notice to a worldwide audience. He has won six Breeders' Cup races but none since he rode Fraise to win the 1992 Turf at Gulfstream Park.

Already, Valenzuela has become allied with top stables. He rode Lord Flasheart to a third-place finish in Sunday's Sunset Handicap for trainer Bobby Frankel. Earlier in the day at Del Mar, he worked horses for Bob Baffert.

"Things will pop up sooner or later," he said of gaining top mounts. "There's always jockeys jumping at the last minute. Who knows? We could wind up on eight on Breeders' Cup day."

It is hard to tell where Valenzuela's career would be without the suspensions. There may have been Eclipse Awards, more Kentucky Derby winners, or induction in the Hall of Fame. He may have developed a role similar to Jerry Bailey, the East Coast veteran with a steady presence in major races.

"It's not too late," Valenzuela said. "Why can't I just be the West Coast Patrick Valenzuela? If that's the way it will be in the future, then that's the way it's supposed to be. I want to be a clean, sober member of the society. After that, everything will fall into place."

So far this year, everything has fallen into place for Valenzuela. His next test on the racetrack begins on Wednesday. The test away from the track will never end.