03/08/2002 1:00AM

For Valenzuela, so far, so good

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - With barely an eighth of a mile left to run in last weekend's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, there suddenly appeared to be a very real chance that Patrick Valenzuela could actually win the race aboard a dead-game longshot, Western Pride. They eventually finished second to Milwaukee Brew.

Now, it looks as if Valenzuela and Western Pride will be the only American team flying the flag on March 23 in the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

The winner gets $3.6 million.

Is this a great country or what?

The fact that Valenzuela is even allowed to approach a racehorse in a parimutuel setting is a testimony to America's dedication to the concept of the second chance. At the age of 39, Valenzuela carries with him a chronic history of dirty drug tests and broken promises. He has left his loyal fans mystified, patrons high and dry, and heaped chaos upon his family.

Yet here he is, back again, riding like the devil. Since his latest return at the beginning of the Santa Anita meet last Dec. 26, Valenzuela had 14 winners from 210 mounts through Thursday. Only Alex Solis, Laffit Pincay, and Kent Desormeaux had ridden more races at Santa Anita. Valenzuela has won a couple of small stakes, and now he's starting to hit the board in the big ones. Even the eternally optimistic Valenzuela is surprised.

"No way I could even imagine all this happening," Valenzuela said shortly after Western Pride's gallant effort in the Santa Anita Handicap. "I thought maybe, if I was lucky, I'd be riding two a day. Here I'm on eight, on the biggest day of the meet. It's unbelievable."

Any number of writers have described California as a place of re-invention, where a ruined life can have a second act. Some would contend that Valenzuela has abused the privilege. Bob Lewis, one of the racing industry's most respected leaders, would disagree.

"We can't give up on these people," said Lewis. "I think society, for its own well being, should insist upon recognizing that these people will fail, on frequent occasion. But we do not have a right to give up on them."

When Valenzuela was down and out, suspended indefinitely in February 2001 after testing positive for an amphetamine, Lewis offered him a job at his Foothill Beverage Co., representing the Anheuser-Busch brand as a merchandiser. Basically, Valenzuela would make the rounds of large local chain stores and see that the cold boxes were well stocked.

"You've never seen such a hard worker," Lewis said. "God forbid something should happen, but if he were to retire tomorrow for some reason, we would certainly give serious consideration for him to come back in our employ, if he would care to be a beer man."

There will be a brief pause while the reader recovers from the idea of Patrick Valenzuela, in exile because of substance abuse, making ends meet by stacking six packs of Bud Light in a local Ralphs Market. There is no substitute, however, for the soothing powers of steady work. Valenzuela knew he was squandering his considerable talents (more than 3,000 wins, six Breeders' Cup wins, and a Kentucky Derby are evidence enough), and so he waited through all of last year, testing clean, allowing the system to work.

Now he is back, under zero-tolerance terms that would daunt all but the most dedicated soul. He must sign in at the California Horse Racing Board office every day. He must submit to random testing - breathalizer, saliva swab, or urine - at a moment's notice, day or night, a minimum of eight times a month. He must report to the Winners Foundation three times a week to continue his drug and alcohol rehab program. Outside the track, he is not allowed to enter "any public place where alcohol is the principal commodity for sale," according to the Board order, and he never knows when someone will be watching. If he fails to comply with any of the above, he will be considered dirty.

"It's a tougher program than parolees are on," said Mike Kilpack, head of the Santa Anita CHRB investigative office. "We can only keep our fingers crossed and he proves us all wrong. But if he fails, it won't be because of anything this office didn't do, or Winners, or how he was treated by the media. He'll have only himself to blame."

Valenzuela will be tested just before he leaves for Dubai and immediately after he returns. For those four days, however, he will be out from under the CHRB's constant supervision.

"We went through his record," said Donald Calabria, Valenzuela's attorney, "and one of the periods he really did well was when he was tested 60 or 70 times. He said to me at one point, 'I don't know what it is, but when I have to be tested I don't have any of the urges.' "

Valenzuela was asked if he was worth all the trouble.

"I'm just very grateful for what the racing board has done," he said, "and the opportunity to come back and ride horses, and do something I really love to do. As long as I keep doing my job, keeping it one day at a time, things are going to work out."

And what would Pat Valenzuela be doing right now if he wasn't able to ride? He didn't think twice about a reply:

"I'd probably still be rotating beer for Mr. Bob Lewis."