04/20/2004 12:00AM

Valenzuela ruling off mark


ARCADIA, Calif. - John Harris, the chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, was within his right to issue a stay for jockey Patrick Valenzuela, allowing Valenzuela to ride anew while the appeal of his latest suspension winds its way through the state's multitiered legal system. But what kind of precedent did Harris set, and what message did his decision send?

Valenzuela's troubled past resulted in his agreeing to unprecedented monitoring when he was granted a conditional jockey's license 2 1/2 years ago. The terms were strict, but they were justified. Valenzuela had to submit to at least eight random drug tests per month and had to make himself available for random testing at any time.

On Jan. 22, Valenzuela phoned Santa Anita's stewards and said he could not ride, citing a twisted ankle. He was told to report for a drug test. The stewards did not hear from him for three weeks.

He subsequently was suspended by the stewards for the remainder of the year for violating the terms of his conditional license.

Valenzuela's first avenue of appeal was to the chairman of the racing board, Harris. Valenzuela said he was suffering from depression and brought forth people and paperwork to support his claim. Harris granted the stay, which allows Valenzuela to ride at least until his case is heard by an administrative law judge, a process that could take several months.

Harris said that he issued the stay because he was "pretty certain" Valenzuela would have received a stay in Superior Court and that the court's stay might not have included the conditions to which Valenzuela has now agreed, which include both drug testing and psychological counseling.

That is questionable on several fronts. There is no guarantee a court would have issued the stay. The stewards suspended Valenzuela for violating a contract that both parties signed. It was not a subjective issue, such as when the stewards issue five-day suspensions for careless riding. Valenzuela agreed to submit to random drug testing, then refused to take a test.

The new terms imposed by Harris might be considered stricter than those under Valenzuela's previous conditional license, but a precedent has now been set. Based on this decision, riders can now refuse to take a random drug test, then later claim depression or other problems as a reason.

Harris said he does not believe his decision undermines the authority of the stewards. He might want to ask the stewards if they share that opinion.

From the time Valenzuela came back 2 1/2 years ago from a lengthy suspension until now, he has not had a positive test. According to Harris, this was a factor in issuing the stay.

There is no evidence Valenzuela did not submit to his Jan. 22 drug test because he would have failed it. But there is no evidence to the contrary, either. From the time he went AWOL, until the time he was finally tested again, two months had passed. Would he have tested positive on Jan. 22? We will never know.

In the summer of 1990, less than a year after a suspension for a positive cocaine test, Valenzuela was scheduled to ride in a stakes race in Maryland. He phoned in sick, then returned to Del Mar, and did not ride again for a week. When asked to come in during that gap for a drug test, Valenzuela said he could not, citing the sudden illness of one of his daughters that required a visit to an emergency room. The stewards accepted that excuse.

Subsequent calls to local hospitals, however, found no record of such an emergency room visit. A week passed before Valenzuela was tested. An official with the lab that performed the tests at the time pointed out that cocaine can leave someone's system in four or five days.

Less than three months later, Valenzuela refused to take a drug test. He was suspended for six months.

Throughout his career, Valenzuela has repeatedly disappeared for months on end, during which time he was not tested. But at least once, Valenzuela tried to cheat on a test. In Florida in 1996, Valenzuela submitted a urine sample that the state lab said was not from a human. That episode also resulted in a suspension.

When you get a driver's license - let alone a jockey's license - it comes with conditions. You have to stop at red lights, pull over when a police car cruises up behind you flashing its lights, and submit to a field sobriety test if an officer has reasonable cause to think you might have been drinking.

Now, it's as if Valenzuela has been pulled over, asked to submit to a field sobriety test, and responded by telling the officer he was depressed and wanted to take the test a couple of months later.

Valenzuela is clearly a troubled man, and it is encouraging that so many people want to see him healthy. He will be a father and a member of society far longer than he will be a jockey. There is a difference between helping him solve his problems and enabling those problems to continue.