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Pat Valenzuela's Rough Ride : The Champion Jockey Claims He's Back on Track After Tamong His Drug Problems

April 28, 1991|PETER CRANE BENNETT | Peter Crane Bennett is a Los Angeles writer and former racetrack publicist.

ON RACQUETBALL COURT NO. 5 AT THE Arcadia All-Pro Athletic Club, jockey Patrick Valenzuela fusses with a turquoise cap turned backward on his head, swats the air with his racket, then taps the bleached hardwood, signaling his impatience for the next shot.

His opponent, Richard Duggan, lofts a lazy serve to Valenzuela's right. Valenzuela bulls his way to the ball and blasts it high off the front wall. Duggan deftly intercepts the ball and deadens it in the corner to go up 14-13.

Duggan, 56, a British blood-stock agent who looks aristocratic even in heather-gray sweats, waits as Valenzuela tugs at his shoelaces and peels away his sweat-soaked parka. This time Duggan squibs a shot just over the service line. Startled, Valenzuela dives but scoops nothing but air. Game: Duggan.

"Hey, it's not over," Valenzuela says. "It's the best two out of three."

Duggan protests this sudden change of the rules, but, overpowered by his opponent's brash insistence, lets Valenzuela push him to three games. When Duggan finally wins the match--the prize is a glass of Coca-Cola--Valenzuela teases him: "You gotta make these old guys feel good about themselves."

Once again, Valenzuela, with no weapon other than his stubbornness, has gotten his way. It is his trademark in the sport that made him famous when he was only a teen-ager--his talent for creating opportunities where none seem to exist. But now, at 28, he is facing what may be his last chance. He is waiting out a six-month suspension from horse racing imposed by the Hollywood Park board of stewards after he refused to take a mandatory drug test. Two years before, he had tested positive for cocaine and had been suspended for 60 days.

Valenzuela, who calls himself a recovering drug addict, is ineligible to race until May 12. Next Saturday, when the 117th Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs, Valenzuela, the talented descendant of a four-decade racing dynasty, will not be there. It is the archetypal story of self-destructive success. The main character could be a movie star, a politician or a football player. But in this version, it's a jockey whose ability to crash and come back is almost as legendary as his ability to win big-stake races. When Valenzuela returns two weeks from today, he must try not only to regain his winning ways but also to outrun the long memories of trainers and owners who see him as charming and gifted but utterly unreliable. Valenzuela's peers are taking even odds on his success. "He's a cat with many lives," says trainer Eddie Gregson. But others believe that he has had his last comeback, that he doesn't deserve another.

Valenzuela seems unconcerned. Leaving the racquetball court, he grips the steering wheel of his black Porsche Carrera and heads north along the border of Santa Anita Race Track's eastern entrance.

"When I get back on that racetrack, they're going to have a tough cookie to deal with," he says. "I'm going to eat their lunch. The first day I come back, I can almost guarantee you I'll win a race.

"This is going to be my greatest comeback ever."

THE EARLY MORNING sunlight washes over Santa Anita Park after three days of rain. The track shimmers against the rugged silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains. In the stable area on the side of the track, the acrid odors of mucked straw, saddle soap and liniment filter through the weathered green shed rows marked by the names of such Kentucky Derby hopefuls as Dinard, Best Pal and Sea Cadet. Grooms are busy picking hoofs clean, curry-combing and bathing horses. Spread across the vast, red-tiled apron in front of the main grandstand are trainers clinging to their stopwatches. Their dreams for gold and glory are divided into fifths of a second, each fifth representing about one length in a race.

The jockeys are making the rounds, offering to work horses, any horses, in hope that trainers will retain their services for the afternoon. The jockeys' agents are hustling, too, schmoozing trainers, trying to get "their boys" on top of as many horses as possible. It's a high-pressure business; a jockey's salary is 10% of the purses he wins, and his agent gets 25% of his cut. You can't win purses unless you ride in races, lots of races.

In Southern California, the competition--on and off the track--is fierce, and year round. The season goes from Santa Anita, to Hollywood Park, to Del Mar, to Fairplex in Pomona, then back to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Everyone gets Christmas off, but on the 26th, they're back at the track, five days a week, nine races a day.

"We've become like an all-night restaurant," says Gregson, who trained 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol. "Everybody suffers."

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