05/29/2002 11:00PM

Valenzuela's value ends at windows


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The intention of this handicapping article was to chronicle from a wagering perspective the dominance of Hollywood Park's leading jockey. Specifically, it would have detailed the parimutuel value in backing a rider who, many Californians believe, is among the most naturally gifted to ever climb on a racehorse.

The premise was to illustrate the sweeping difference one jockey has made in the outcome of races this spring. Surely there were benefits in wagering blind on the comeback kid, Pat Valenzuela.

The story might have suggested bettors have undervalued the impact of "first-time" Valenzuela. Although Valenzuela is well atop the Hollywood standings after six weeks, this article was expected to reveal Valenzuela's positive wagering impact, which horseplayers had yet to recognize.

If only it were true.

Sure, at age 39 Valenzuela is riding well. One could even say he is riding great, which would be nothing new. Away from the sport for nearly two years until his comeback last winter at Santa Anita, Valenzuela has reestablished himself as a leading jockey on arguably the nation's toughest circuit.

Through Monday, when he won the first Grade 1 of his comeback, in the Shoemaker Mile, Valenzuela had won 30 of 149 races. He regularly puts his horses "in the race," coaxing speed where speed is paramount. Valenzuela saves ground, adapts to circumstances, and finishes. He also "race rides," a polite term for strategy jockeys employ that gives their mount the best chance and possibly compromises competitors.

To handicappers, Valenzuela is just the kind of jockey to bet on. "You always get your money's worth," is what bettors say about wagering on horses ridden by Valenzuela.

If only it were true.

Anecdotal evidence of Valenzuela's dominance at Hollywood showed up in his first mount of the meet, when he exceeded expectations on 9-1 shot Mighty David. Riding the fifth wagering choice in the fifth race on Wednesday, April 24, Valenzuela dead-heated for second. He won the feature race that day, won another race Thursday, two more Friday, and the Grade 2 Hawthorne on Saturday.

It appeared that Valenzuela was back. Five weeks later, there is no reason to believe otherwise. Valenzuela is still getting run from his horses, still winning races, still making the right moves at the right time.

Valenzuela, it seemed, was the right guy to bet on, to "get your money's worth." Had that been true, it would have made for a better story. Anecdotal evidence does not always hold up to unbiased scrutiny, however.

To determine if Valenzuela moved horses up, I measured the Beyer Speed Figure improvement or decline of "first-time Valenzuela" runners. That is, horses he rode this meet who were ridden in their previous start by someone else. The study excluded imports and 2-year-olds who had only raced two furlongs. That left 85 horses switching to Valenzuela. No other factor was considered.

If Valenzuela was moving horses up, the expectation was that a significant majority of the 85 horses would show a Beyer increase over their last start. Possibly, the horses would improve enough to win at overlay prices and generate a flat-bet profit. Or, not.

In fact, only 42 of the 85 horses improved their Beyers. Another 39 declined. Four others remained the same. The results were in line with a random sample, nothing more. Valenzuela was not moving horses up. He was riding good horses.

Finish position produced similar results. Only 42 of the 85 horses finished in a higher position than in their last start. Another 34 finished in a lower placing. Nine were the same. Once again, there was no statistical improvement.

It gets worse.

Valenzuela, for all his natural ability, is simply too popular among bettors. When this study began, the prediction was the "first-time Valenzuela" angle, backfitted to the start of the meet, would produce a flat-bet profit. Wrong again.

Only 10 of the 85 horses that Valenzuela rode for the first time won. Their depressed payoffs ranged from a low of $4 to a high of $16.20. Betting blind on first-time Valenzuela required a $170 investment; the return was only $88.40, or roughly $1 for each $2 wager. Ugh.

The "Valenzuela underlay" has been a meet-long trend. The highest-paying winner ridden by Valenzuela returned only $19.20. The average payoff on his 30 winners (14 of them favored) is a paltry $8.60. Valenzuela's meet-long return on investment (per $2 wager) is $1.73.

Valenzuela is back. He is at the top of his game. Applaud him.

But bet on the jockey?

Only if he is riding the right horse.