Pat Valenzuela knew the question that reporters wanted to ask after the $68,050 Autumn Days Handicap Wednesday at Santa Anita. It was a question that had little to do with Valenzuela's victory with an old friend, the 5-year-old mare Aberuschka.
So, Valenzuela beat his questioners to the question.
"What do you want to know, guys?" the 24-year-old jockey said. "What my personal problems are?"
Well, yes, for openers.
"You're wasting your time," Valenzuela said. "I'll sit down and talk about it in the future."
Since Valenzuela left New Mexico and broke a 31-year-old Santa Anita record for apprentices by riding 83 winners during the winter of 1980, he has been one of the unsung stars on the Southern California racing scene. He won the Santa Anita Derby with Codex when he was only 17 and, although not well-known nationally, has successfully ridden such standouts as Interco, Althea, Fran's Valentine, Al Mamoon, Arewehavingfunyet, Very Subtle and Melair.
Sometimes, though, trainers have replaced Valenzuela with more renowned jockeys when their top horses run out of town, and at least three times in recent years Valenzuela has abruptly left the track for various unexplained periods.
Valenzuela most recently departed in late August in the middle of a second promising season.
In 1986, Valenzuela's mounts earned $7.1 million, with the jockey banking approximately 10% of that. Valenzuela won the Del Mar riding title, becoming the first jockey other than Laffit Pincay or Chris McCarron to lead that track's standings since 1978.
Then Valenzuela capped the year by riding Brave Raj to victory in the $1-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Stakes at Santa Anita in November.
Third in the standings at last winter's Santa Anita meeting, Valenzuela missed the final 12 days of the season for what his agent, Jerry Ingordo, described as personal problems.
That explanation was given again in late August when Valenzuela left the Del Mar meeting with no hopes of repeating as champion. He had ridden only 9 winners in 120 mounts.
Despite the absences, Valenzuela had still ridden horses that earned $4 million this year, and going into September the Daily Racing Form had him 12th on the national money list.
This time, though, when Valenzuela came back, Ingordo, his agent for nine years, left him to take the book of Sandy Hawley.
Although not a jockey who works many horses in the mornings, Valenzuela began appearing at the barns of several trainers, including Charlie Whittingham, about three weeks ago.
"I explained my situation to Charlie, and he said to come on by," Valenzuela said Wednesday. "I want to work. I want to stay busy and keep myself occupied."
Valenzuela said that when he came to Santa Anita Wednesday, for the opening day of the Oak Tree meeting's season, his only objective was "to get through the day healthy."
The winning stretch move he made with Aberuschka, before a crowd of 45,561, was not conducive to his well-being. Twelve horses ran in the Autumn Days, and in midstretch at least half of them were looking for room that might lead to the wire.
With an eighth of a mile to run, Aberuschka, who had been lagging coming down the hill, found herself two out from the fence, but lodged in tight company between Luisant and Mausie. She got through to win by a length over Luisant, with Down Again another three-fourths of a length behind in third place.
Aberuschka, timed in an ordinary 1:14 4/5 for the distance of about 6 1/2 furlongs, earned $41,050 for her owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, and as the third betting choice paid $8.80, $4.60 and $3.20.
Luisant, running as an entry with Trudie Domino, who was fifth, paid $5.20 and $3.40. Down Again's show price was $4.60. Lichi, the 2-1 favorite, finished fourth.
"I had plenty of horse left," Valenzuela said. "I waited for an opening, and she went right through the hole when I asked her. . . . "
Trainer Bobby Frankel's Irish-bred Aberuschka hadn't won a race since Valenzuela rode her in the Ocean Bound Stakes at Belmont Park in June. That was the fourth stake Valenzuela had won with Aberuschka.
With McCarron in the saddle, Aberuschka had been sixth and fifth at Del Mar and fourth at Louisiana Downs in her last three starts.
"She's been in a lot of trouble every time she ran recently," Frankel said. "She got lucky and got through today. I'm just glad she won this race.
I wanted to get her back on the right track."
Valenzuela said he had no weight problems during his latest layoff.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I didn't have to go to the (reducing) box at all. I thought I might be tired, but I'm feeling strong."
Saturday, Valenzuela will be at Louisiana Downs, to ride Micenas in the $200,000 Golden Harvest Handicap.
With a large field probable Sunday for Oak Tree's $150,000 Carleton F. Burke Handicap--and Whittingham likely to start three horses--Valenzuela hopes to have a mount in that stake, too. The long-term goal: Replacing "personal problems" with "staying busy."
Horse Racing Notes
Trainer Bobby Frankel also won the fourth race Wednesday with Straw Vote, and his Quietly Bold ran second in the fifth. . . . Apprentice Dave Patton took off his mounts because of a headache, and one of them, Bruli's Ante, won the ninth race for another apprentice rider, Arturo Banderas. . . . Salud Y Pesetas, a 3-year-old colt who was winless this year, won the seventh race and ran a mile in 1:33 4/5, only a fifth of a second slower than the track record set by Pompeii Court in 1982. . . . The crowd was about 5,000 more than last year's Oak Tree opener and Wednesday's handle of $6.2 million was $500,000 more than a year ago.