06/28/2004 11:00PM

Valenzuela to ride four in his return


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Corey Nakatani entered the week with a seven-win lead in the Hollywood Park jockey standings, but the competition is about to get a lot tougher. Pat Valenzuela returns Thursday from suspension, and if it seems too late for Valenzuela to lead the meet, do not count him out.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back, and to winning races," Valenzuela said Thursday. "That's what my job is, to win races. I'm not going to say I'll win the title, but I won't say I won't win the title either. I'm just going to do the best I can in every race. After the first week, you'll have a pretty good idea."

As if they don't already. Love him or hate him, Valenzuela makes a difference. But his aggressive style, and repeated suspensions for riding infractions and substance-related issues, rubs many people the wrong way. So be it. Valenzuela entered the week tied with Alex Solis for fourth with 33 wins. Tyler Baze had 38 into Wednesday, and Victor Espinoza had 37. Valenzuela is 12 behind Nakatani. It will not be easy to catch the moving target.

Nakatani has six mounts on the eight-race Thursday card, while Valenzuela has four. Based only on volume, Nakatani holds the advantage. But Nakatani also is riding in peak form, and horsemen have noticed. It is not an accident when the leading jockey rides all but two races. Nakatani's agent is Nick Cosato, Valenzuela's former agent who represented the rider in 2003, when he led every Southern California meet.

Corey Black has since taken Valenzuela's book, and Black recognizes that Valenzuela's current comeback may pick up steam less quickly than when he returned from an extended break in late April. "We came back during Derby week last time, so for a couple days there were seven riders out of town. I'd be surprised if we won 12 races the first six days this time."

Surprise is nothing new for Valenzuela, 41. But at his age, could he possibly be rusty after having not ridden since May 31? "I think I keep pretty fit. I don't think one month will take too much out of me," he said. Valenzuela said he spent time with his family during June, acting like a tourist and going to Universal Studios, Magic Mountain, and Raging Waters. He began exercising horses over the weekend.

In the seventh-race feature on Thursday, a field of one-other-than California-breds race 1 1/16 miles on turf. Leading contenders include .