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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.

In subsequent seasons, Valenzuela consistently ranked among the top riders. In 1982, he won the George Woolf Award, given annually by Santa Anita to the rider who best reflects credit to his profession both on and off the track. But in 1988, the jockey whose riding exploits inspired superlatives began attracting attention for the wrong reasons--the multiple sick days, the lame excuses for his absences. That March, the Santa Anita stewards, exasperated by Valenzuela's increasing absences, suspended him for the remainder of the season, about a month and a half. But no one, not the media, not the stewards, mentioned drug abuse.

Two months later, while attempting a comeback at Santa Fe Downs in New Mexico, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine, but the test was thrown out because of a technicality. Valenzuela then resurfaced in June at Hawthorne Race Track near Chicago and performed well until he fractured his leg in a starting-gate accident. But he was back at Santa Anita in the fall to win his first Oak Tree title with 44 wins, including a record-tying six wins in one day.

In 1989, Valenzuela hit his stride. He won the 115th running of the Kentucky Derby on Sunday Silence, a colt that zigzagged down Churchill Downs' storied stretch like a drunk reeling from too many mint juleps. During the chaotic winner's circle ceremony, the rider told a nationwide television audience to "just say no to drugs." Two weeks later, Valenzuela and Sunday Silence won a whip-cracking stretch duel over Pat Day and Easy Goer in the Preakness Stakes.

But before year's end, Valenzuela seemed to self-destruct, bombing out on big races. On October 14, when he was supposed to ride Hawkster in the Oak Tree Invitational, he called in sick at the last minute. Six days later, the stewards at Santa Anita ordered that he take a drug test; he came out positive for cocaine and got a 60-day suspension. He had to sit idly by as Sunday Silence won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic under McCarron.

Last year, in a virtual replay of his roller-coaster seasons of 1988 and 1989, Valenzuela won riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar. But on November 3, Valenzuela called in sick the day of the $1-million inaugural California Cup at Santa Anita. Later that day, steward Tom Ward telephoned the track physician, Dr. Neal Fisher, and asked him to test Valenzuela. Valenzuela refused.

The following month, at a hearing before stewards to determine the penalty, Valenzuela was uncharacteristically silent. "I'm really kicking myself in the butt," Valenzuela says now. "There's a lot of questions in my mind that I wanted to ask." His version, which he did not argue during the hearing, is that the stewards never asked him to test. But the track physician is an arm of the steward, so Valenzuela's excuse didn't wash.

"He indicated through Dr. Fisher that he would not test," Ward says. "That's the sum and substance of it."

Before the stewards' ruling on December 22, the directors of the Jockeys' Guild, which represents most riders in the United States, voted 22-2 to send Valenzuela a warning of expulsion. Valenzuela, who eventually resigned from the guild, says his colleagues had ulterior motives. "You gotta figure I'm one of their main competitors," he says. "I was the only one to win two meets out of the five last year, and you know that hurts their checkbook."

VALENZUELA HAS BEEN called a devil on horseback. His horses seem to pop the gate with a length head-start and run as if their tails were on fire. "He has some kind of sixth sense of communication with horses," says Bill Spawr, a leading trainer at Santa Anita. Adds trainer Mel Stute: "He just has something that gets the horses running and keeps 'em running."

According to Ingordo, Valenzuela never had a riding slump in the 11 years they were together. "He could come back right now and catch the leaders," says Ingordo, who split with the rider after Valenzuela didn't show up to ride Hawkster. "You go and get the horses, and who winds up riding? Somebody else. I mean, I love the kid, but I just couldn't do it anymore."

Says Valenzuela about the breakup: "It was a mutual agreement. You know, you get tired of the same old stuff sometimes." His new agent, Bob Meldahl, understands his limitations, Valenzuela says, and doesn't pitch a fit every time he wants a day off.

Short, wiry and tough, Ingordo says he spent $10,000 in traveling expenses to keep a tight rein on Valenzuela during the 1989 Triple Crown races. "If I didn't go with him, he wouldn't have ridden," Ingordo says sharply. "You have to watch him all the time."

"I would have been there no matter what," Valenzuela insists.

Ingordo says he often was called before the stewards to explain his jockey's absences. "It's just like having a son," he says. "You're the last one to know what's happening."

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