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HORSE RACING BILL CHRISTINE

Valenzuela Recalls Top Memories

July 26, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE

DEL MAR — Although Pat Valenzuela won Del Mar's first $1-million race, the 1991 Pacific Classic with Best Pal, and he has won 47 other stakes races at the track that Bing Crosby built, two of the most memorable moments here for the 39-year-old jockey came during morning workouts.

He dipped into his memory book Thursday, during a training-hours break at the seaside course. He won his 48th Del Mar stake on opening day Wednesday, with True Phenomenon in a division of the Oceanside, but it was his first win here in five years, due to repeated suspensions brought on by drug use.

In the good old days, Valenzuela could ride the hair off horses, no matter who else showed up in the jockeys' room. From 1986 to 1991, he won three Del Mar riding titles, and he might be on the threshold of recapturing some of that luster. At the recently concluded Hollywood Park stand--only the second full meet for Valenzuela in almost two years--he won 74 races as he outdistanced Alex Solis, who was No. 2 in the standings, by 13 wins.

Eleven years ago this August, Valenzuela was aboard Best Pal for an important morning workout a few days before the Pacific Classic. Gary Jones, the horse's trainer, was looking for a sharp move to prepare the 3-year-old gelding for a race against a bevy of older contenders that included Farma Way, Itsallgreektome and Unbridled, the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner.

One furlong into a six-furlong workout, as Best Pal gathered momentum down the backstretch, one of Valenzuela's stirrups broke.

"That could have been disastrous," he said. "I don't know how I kept him together and stayed on. But he finished up in something like 1:10 4/5. That was probably one of the best works he ever had, but it wasn't easy."

Best Pal gave Valenzuela one of nine wins in million-dollar races. Six of those seven-figure wins have come in the Breeders' Cup. Only seven jockeys have won more, even though Valenzuela has had only one Breeders' Cup mount since 1993.

A Breeders' Cup win that got away was Sunday Silence's decision over archenemy Easy Goer in the $3-million Classic at Gulfstream Park in 1989. In a 14-race career--nine wins, five seconds and $4.9 million in purses--Sunday Silence was ridden 12 times by Valenzuela, including their win together in the 1989 Kentucky Derby, but several weeks before the Classic, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine at Santa Anita, and Chris McCarron took over.

As a prep for Gulfstream, trainer Charlie Whittingham scheduled the $1-million Super Derby at Louisville Downs. The colt was still stabled at Del Mar, and before Whittingham put him on a plane he needed to work Sunday Silence a crisp mile.

"Let him roll," Whittingham said to Valenzuela as he climbed aboard.

Roll? Clockers would have been better served to report the workout in machs instead of minutes and seconds.

"He did it in 1:33 1/5," Valenzuela said. "That equaled [Precisionist's] track record."

Was Whittingham miffed that Valenzuela might have overdone it?

"No," the jockey said. "Charlie was happy."

Happier still when Sunday Silence cantered in the Super Derby, winning by six lengths. His time for the opening mile of the 1 1/4-mile race was a sedentary 1:37 4/5.

Valenzuela was surprised to hear that Sunday Silence, the premier sire in Japan for the last seven years, has fallen on tough times. Now 16, the stallion has undergone three surgeries, the most recent on July 18, after a virus led to severe swelling in his right foreleg.

"He'll be all right," Valenzuela said. "He's a fighter."

The nine-lives jockey could have been talking about himself. The California Horse Racing Board, probably on the brink of throwing away the key, allowed Valenzuela to return, from another of his enforced layoffs, at Santa Anita this winter.

His weight had soared to 145 pounds--at the memorial service for jockey Chris Antley, Valenzuela's double-breasted suit was swelled to contain him--but, given one more reprieve, he exercised and dieted diligently.

Part of the regimen was running from his Arcadia home to the jockeys' room at Santa Anita--exactly 4.9 miles. By opening day, he was down to 113 pounds.

He didn't win any races right off, but with his first mount he finished a strong second on a horse owned by Ron Waranch, one of his staunch supporters, and several Santa Anita trainers snapped to attention. When the meet ended in April, Valenzuela had won 42 races and was sixth in the standings. At all tracks this year, the horses he has ridden have earned $5.5 million to rank him 10th nationally.

"I've been [sober] for a year, a year as of last month," Valenzuela said. "They test me [for drugs] at least eight times a month, sometimes more. If there's any resentment [about getting another chance], I don't hear it. I don't hear any bad vibes. There are probably still some trainers who won't use me, but I think over a period of time, they've seen that I've had my old commitment again."

Said trainer Patrick Biancone: "He's paid his dues. You can see the fire in his eyes again."

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