09/06/2010 2:03PM

Valenzuela's California return a rousing one

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DEL MAR, Calif. – Patrick Valenzuela does not get very far around Del Mar without someone shouting at him.

These aren’t the stereotypical racetrack fans, barking at a jockey after losing a race. What Valenzuela hears are shouts of encouragement as he walks the path from the jockeys’ room to the paddock, or from the racetrack back to the jockeys’ room.

“I’ve got so many people saying, ‘P. Val, it’s great to have you back,’ ” he said on a recent afternoon. “I feed off that. It makes you feel so much better. It keeps you working.”

For more than 2 1/2 years, Valenzuela heard nothing from California racing fans. He was banned from riding in the state after a drunk driving arrest in December 2007 led to the termination of a conditional jockey’s license.

Valenzuela was able to ride in Louisiana, where he had a license in good standing, but yearned to ride again in California. Attempts to regain a conditional license were unsuccessful until earlier this summer, when he returned to riding at Del Mar on July 28, in time for the second week of the meeting.

By any measure, his comeback has been brilliant. Through Saturday, Valenzuela was third in the jockey’s standings with 28 wins, well behind Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario, men young enough to be his sons who are fighting for the riding title with 49 and 48 wins.

“It’s been a dream come true, the overall meet,” he said. “I don’t think anyone foresaw it. It’s amazing what happened.”

At 47, as the senior jockey of the circuit, Valenzuela has been in demand in all sorts of races this summer, riding the cheapest maiden claimers and the top races of the meeting. Wednesday, he rides J P’s Gusto in the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity, a race Valenzuela has won once before, with Best Pal in 1990.

Valenzuela picked up the ride on J P’s Gusto after jockey Joe Talamo injured his wrist on Aug. 5. Three days later, Valenzuela rode J P’s Gusto to a win in the Best Pal Stakes on Aug. 8, a performance that will make J P’s Gusto the Del Mar Futurity favorite.

J P’s Gusto led throughout the Best Pal Stakes, but Valenzuela does not see the horse as one-dimensional. “He was a little keen to go when the other horses got to him,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t think he has to be on the lead. He can be a patient horse. I don’t see any problem.”

A year ago, a successful 2010 in Southern California seemed highly improbable for Valenzuela.

In early September of 2009, Valenzuela, nursing a broken shoulder blade suffered in a spill at Louisiana Downs that August, traveled to California for the sole purpose of seeing family.

Without a riding license, he was just a onlooker at California tracks, a spectator who happened to have won the 1989 Kentucky Derby, and happened to have won 15 career riding titles at Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita from 1986-2006.

Valenzuela petitioned the California Horse Racing Board for a conditional license last fall, was unsuccessful, and then approached the board again this summer. An agreement was reached that included strict terms that require alcohol counseling, drug testing, and a ban on possessing drugs or alcohol.

When the subject of his past substance abuse problems that have plagued his career are mentioned, Valenzuela’s frequent smile disappears. He tries to steer a conversation in another direction, but allows “I’ve let myself down.” Later, he says, “I want to stay grounded and take it one day at a time.”

This summer, he has taken a different approach to his daily schedule, focusing on riding in the afternoons and deemphasizing morning workouts. At his age, Valenzuela admits his knees can occasionally become sore.

“When I ride quite a few horses, it will be sore,” he said. “I have to ice it after the races. Not getting on too many horses in the morning is a big help. I’ll work one when I need to come out. I like to keep off my knee as much as possible.”

Del Mar’s meeting will end around 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Aside from a possible stakes mount, Valenzuela will take a three-week break until the Oak Tree at Hollywood Park meeting begins on Sept. 30.

When that meeting starts, Valenzuela will be aiming for the riding title, though jockeys such as Rosario and Bejarano are in the prime of their careers and will be tough to beat. Valenzuela may have to settle for being among the leaders.

It’s an opportunity that in the last few years he feared was lost forever.