DEL MAR — When Steve Valdez weighed himself in 1982, he felt more like a horse than a jockey.
Valdez tipped the scales at 153 pounds, 43 pounds more than he had weighed during those promising days when he was 17. A jockey who weighs 153 does not get much work.
While at his heaviest, Valdez was an assistant starter with the gate crew at Los Alamitos. He kept telling people he would be back again as a jockey, and it came to be considered a joke.
However, Valdez is getting the last laugh nowadays. Down to 117 pounds at age 29, he is on the comeback trail as a jockey at Del Mar this summer.
"I was surprised to see him," jockey Laffit Pincay said. "I saw him a couple of years ago and he was really big. I'm surprised he has lost so much weight."
It hasn't been easy.
Valdez is at the track at 5 a.m. daily to do whatever is necessary to return to form. He runs at least four miles, sits in a 180-degree sweat box and works out the horses.
"I'll get on anything with hair on its back," he said. "I'm working hard to come back."
Valdez is trying to find his way back to a day like he had as a 17-year-old in February of 1973 at Santa Anita. He won six races that day, equaling a track record held by Bill Shoemaker and Pincay.
That was a year in which he won the Eclipse Award as the year's best apprentice jockey and earned in excess of $200,000. He rode 1,599 horses in 1973, winning with 272 for an excellent .170 winning percentage.
However, success did not beget success. Valdez, who said his family "wasn't rich," had plenty of money for the first time and discovered he liked good food.
As the weight went up, the earnings went down.
By 1979, Valdez was too heavy to race.
"I had never had much success before," he said. "When I had it, I didn't know how to handle it. I'm smarter now. If I have success, I'll handle it better."
Since Valdez began his thoroughbred comeback at Hollywood Park in May, he has yet to win a race.
Regardless, Valdez still dreams of returning to his early-career form.
"I remember when he was doing really well," Pincay said. "He was a fantastic apprentice rider. He looked super on the horses and won a lot of good races."
"I noticed he wasn't taking care of himself," Pincay said. "I saw him eating a lot. When you win and are happy, you feel like celebrating. You go out and party and think it will never end. I won't say that's the case with him, but it could've happened. I've seen it with others."
Valdez admitted he saw it happen with himself.
"I just ate anything," he said. "I'd eat and drink a lot. It has taken a lot of time to come back. It didn't happen overnight."
Valdez began a racing comeback in 1981 by riding quarter horses. Jockeys can ride quarter horses at 122 pounds, a weight Valdez could barely make.
It was a start. It gave him an opportunity to taste victory once again, but it gave him more than that. It also gave him a taste if the discipline he would need to get back to thoroughbreds.
"I don't overdo it anymore," he said. "I'm under control right now. Even when I'm hungry, I'll push myself back. I'll tell myself that I'm riding three or four times tomorrow."
Racing has long been in Valdez's blood. His father was a jockey in Arizona, New Mexico and the Midwest. His mother had three brothers who were jockeys.
Valdez earned his first track-related paycheck when he was 8. He spent the summer cleaning stalls and grooming and galloping the horses.
Before he was old enough to be issued a license as an exercise rider, he would sneak onto the track to work out horses. Pony boys used to chase him off, but he kept coming back.
In 1972, at the age of 16, he competed in his first race. A year later, he may not have been on top of the world--but the top was in sight. Five years later, he was an unemployed jockey.
With nowhere to go, Valdez decided to join the rodeo in 1978. He spent the next three and a half years riding horses and bulls bareback.
"I always wanted to be a cowboy," he said. "I found out it was a lot tougher than I thought. I wasn't great, but I made some money. I proved to myself that I could ride them."
Even while riding in the rodeo, Valdez wanted to get back to race horses. He began his comeback as an assistant starter at Los Alamitos, a quarter-horse track. The assistant starter is a gate-crew member who escorts a horse into its stall and makes sure that the jockey and horse remain upright until the start.
In the meantime, he was getting his weight down for a return which he said won't be complete until he starts riding winners at Del Mar.
"I haven't been on much stock yet," Valdez said. "That has helped me. It has given me time to get my weight down and become fit. My horses might not be good now, but maybe they will be later."
Valdez is hungry for the winner's circle again. If he gets there, he'll probably celebrate in the sweat box instead of at the hamburger stand.