08/29/2002 11:00PM

The Valenzuelas: All-of-a-kind family


DEL MAR, Calif. - During their childhood in the barren Rio Grande Valley in the 1930's and 40's, Milo Valenzuela and his brothers were not picky when it came to find something to ride.

"We were raised with horses since I was 3 years old," he recalled. "My father showed me how to rein them. We were riding calves, mules, and horses."

The experience gave Milo, whose given name is Ismael, the foundation to later become a jockey, as did his older brother, Angel, and younger brothers A.C., Mario, and Santiago. Another brother, Martin, became a horse trainer.

Last weekend, A.C. Valenzuela, the father of top jockey Patrick Valenzuela, died after a lengthy battle with kidney disease, leaving a large extended family, but only one surviving brother.

"He was my last brother," Milo said. "I lost Martin, I lost Angel, I lost Mario, and I lost Santiago. I lost my sister and my wife. It's been pretty tough. I love them all. They were great brothers."

A.C.'s condition became grave over the summer. Patrick Valenzuela took off a day of racing in early summer to be with his father, whom he visited frequently, as did Milo.

"We were close," Milo said. "A.C.'s kidneys weren't working for quite a while back. He got worse and worse."

The Valenzuelas were a distinctive story in American racing in the 1950's and 60's. All five brothers rode winners from 1965-67, but had various levels of success. A.C., Mario, and Santiago struggled to consistently find winners, while Angel and Milo had more success.

A.C. had his best season in 1959 when he won 57 races, but had tough times in the 1960's, with one winner in 1961 and none in 1964.

"We were all shooting for a career as a rider," Milo said. "The others decided they wanted to follow Angel and me. We said, 'You're heavy,' but they lost the weight."

Milo was married in 1954, and his father died a year later. In the following years, the other brothers followed Angel and Milo into American racing.

"Angel started first, but he didn't want to ride," Milo said. "He was just goofing around. He wanted to gallop horses. Then I started riding and then he started to ride again."

Angel rode for 22 years and later appeared in the exhibition Rocking Chair Derby at Del Mar in the early 1970's.

Milo Valenzuela was the most successful of the brothers. He won the Kentucky Derby in 1958 with Tim Tam and was awarded the victory 10 years later with Forward Pass after Dancer's Image was disqualified for a positive drug test. In between those milestones, Milo Valenzuela was the regular rider of the mighty Kelso from 1962-65. Kelso was named Horse of the Year from 1960-64.

Angel was the only other brother to ride in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 13th in 1960 aboard Henrijan. Angel won nine stakes at Hollywood Park, while Milo won 50. On 28 occasions, Milo won three races in one day at Hollywood Park.

"We were all over the place," Milo said. "Some were riding in Maryland. Santiago was in Washington and Angel was here."

The family grew up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in McNary, Texas, and Porvenir, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. There were 22 children, but only 12 - six brothers and six sisters - survived into adulthood, Milo said. He has five surviving sisters.

"Most of them died when they were young," Milo said. "We didn't have very good doctors in that little town."

Milo, 67, retired in 1979, too banged up from years of injuries to continue. He had ridden for 28 years. "I broke every bone in my body," he said. "I broke my knee and my legs were giving me problems. I had problem with my weight. I said, 'To hell with it' and I quit. I decided overnight to quit."

For a brief period, he worked with his brother, Martin, who trained in California and at Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, and at one time had 30 horses. Martin died last year.

Milo makes occasional trips to the track, but only follows the sport casually.

"I'm home, cutting the grass and picking up weeds," Milo said. "I'm a diabetic. I'm hurting all over. I go to the races once in a while, not all the time. I'll go for awhile and shoot the bull with some friends."

There are still several Valenzuelas at the track. Pat is the best known; his cousin Fernando is a jockey (currently recovering from injury); cousin Martin is a trainer; and brother A.C. Jr. is an assistant trainer to Howard Zucker.

Valenzuela says he was close to his father, who trained in New Mexico after his riding days and then retired to California. "He taught me everything I know about riding," Pat Valenzuela said. "When I came out here my uncle Milo polished it up a little bit."

Milo keeps up with the success of his nephew Patrick, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1989 aboard Sunday Silence. Patrick Valenzuela has had his career interrupted several times by substance abuse problems, but has returned to lead the standings at Del Mar this summer.

"I keep telling him to give them hell and stay straight," Milo said. "If he stays straight, he can stay on top with the rest of them."

In a way, Milo is jealous of his nephew, who competes at a time of more lucrative prize money than racing offered in the 1950's and 1960's.

"I wish we were all riding now," he said. "They way the purses are, we could make $10 million."