In this blue-chip riding colony, jockeys are independent contractors who can't afford to give themselves a vacation. "I wouldn't enjoy a vacation knowing that everybody is riding my horses," says Chris McCarron, 36, the youngest rider to reach the 5,000-win plateau. "And I would have trouble getting back on the horses I left behind."
Personal rivalry is more heated than in other sports. For one thing, jockeys share a locker room, where tensions can boil over at any time. During Hollywood Park's fall meeting in 1988, Valenzuela broke his right hand in a fight with top jockey Gary Stevens, precipitated by several close finishes between them.
But jockeys save most of their aggression for battling weight. Many riders, with frames as svelte as those of fashion models, maintain a punishing daily regimen of starving and sweating, rather than risk the anger of owners and trainers for overloading the fragile horses. If the 5-foot-4, 116-pound Valenzuela goes off his diet the night before he races, he'll play racquetball in the morning or sit a little longer in the steam room. Other jockeys routinely binge and purge their meals, a habit known around the track as heaving or flipping. Jockey Larry Gilligan, still riding at 53, flipped for 15 years when he was riding in New Jersey in the '60s. "There was no way possible I could keep my weight down and go ahead and eat a nice meal with my family," Gilligan recalls. "All your top riders were flippers."
While jockeys grouse about losing weight, few will talk about the more immediate peril--a career-ending fall. "You can be on top of the world," Gilligan says, "and the next day you can be a paraplegic. But you don't think about these things."
Valenzuela, who makes the sign of the cross before he steps on the track, fell in 1988 and was knocked unconscious when a horse kicked him in the head. "I said, 'I don't ride no more, this is it,' " Valenzuela recalls. "Then the next day, I get up and say, 'I want to go back to riding.' "
Jockeys complain that the public considers them overpaid appendages to magnificent animals that do all the work, when in fact they are superb athletes. "When you talk about a jockey, the average person thinks of a little guy, a tall blonde and a long limousine," says John Giovanni, a former rider who is president of the Jockeys' Guild. "But these guys take the heat. They take the chills, the spills and the abuse, and they just keep punching."
The strain is often overwhelming, and, as in other sports, jockeys turn to drugs and alcohol. In recent years, a drug of choice has been cocaine, because, some track watchers speculate, it is the perfect weight-reducing aid. One trainer says cocaine has infiltrated every jocks' room he's been in. "I've seen jocks walk out of the room with white powder all over their faces," he says.
According to University of Maryland surveys, 47% of track employees have a drug- or alcohol-related problem. Richard Smith, president of the board of the Winners Foundation at Santa Anita, which assists track workers with substance-abuse problems, says that "the percentage of abusers is high." Giovanni doesn't believe it's any higher than in society in general, but he concedes that there are problems among backstretch help, who are paid in cash and battle long stretches of idleness. "And the kids (training to be jockeys) don't learn to ride on a merry-go-round," he says, "they learn on the backstretch."
For some, the Valenzuela episode underscores a failure by the California Horse Racing Board to come to grips with the issue of drug and alcohol abuse. In California, stewards, the umpires of the track, must have probable cause to test a jockey for drugs or alcohol. Generally, a rider who tests positive is taken off his mounts and enrolled in a treatment program until experts declare him ready to return. The rider is then subject to unannounced drug tests at the track. For a second positive test, he may be suspended for six months or a year; a third violation may be cause for a lifetime suspension.
Few of these programs are official, however, according to Dr. Robert Kerlan, medical adviser to the Jockeys' Guild. "There have to be rules and regulations from the horse-racing board so that it's an official stance or posture, which can then be more readily interpreted by the stewards."
Moving in that direction, the state-run horse-racing board has recently formed a Human Substance Abuse Committee to recommend policies for penalties and treatment. "I think recent events concerning, in some cases, very prominent jockeys and trainers, have indicated to the board the need for a sound state policy regulating alcohol and drug substance problems" at the track, says Smith, one of eight members on the committee.