Fernando Valenzuela’s hideaway is just temporary

Jan 12, 2010 5:02 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

Bill Shoemaker never had a weight problem. From the time he was placed in a shoe box and put in an oven to keep warm by his grandmother a few days after he was born, The Shoe was a natural lightweight.

When he began his career in 1949 until The Legend’s Last Ride on Feb. 3, 1990, Shoemaker never weighed more than 100 pounds. He was the consummate jockey: light weight, keen mind, hands of a surgeon.

Most jockeys would settle for one out of three. As it is, in today’s plus-size society, jockeys have all they can do to maintain a typical riding weight of 116 pounds. To do that, they must stay on a rigid diet, exercise vigorously, hit the steam room with regularity and "flip." Not all, but some.

"Flipping" is the gross process whereby one eats, then regurgitates the vittles, purging unwanted calories to keep weight down. It is an extreme and risky lifestyle some riders adapt to pursue their passion.

One rider who has surrendered, at least for the present, is Fernando Valenzuela. A competent rider from a prominent racing family, Fernando has flown under the radar throughout his career and will never come within a furlong of being as famous or successful a rider as his cousin, Patrick, or late uncle, Milo. Fernando still carries a torch, however, for his fickle fervor, although the flame is flickering.

Valenzuela, who turned 40 last June 18, hasn’t ridden competitively since the Fairplex Park meet in September of 2008. Since then, the San Diego native has earned his keep by exercising horses in their early morning rituals for trainers such as Caesar Dominguez, John Shirreffs, Roger Stein and Darrell Vienna. The going rate: $15 a horse.

"I wasn’t getting enough mounts and my weight was on a roller coaster, so I just decided to stop riding, get healthy, do the right thing for my body and not have to worry about my weight on a daily basis," said Valenzuela, an engaging and candid fellow who makes his home in Glendora. His riding weight, including tack–saddle, boots and other paraphernalia–had burst beyond 120 pounds, no weight for a marquee jock, let alone one who was not on every trainer’s ‘A’ list. Now, he tips the scale at "a buck-fifty." (Read 150 pounds).

"Just before I decided to stop riding, I was having trouble tacking 122," Valenzuela said. "That’s when I knew I needed a break. I was just kind of going through the motions and not putting 100 percent effort into what I was doing. I had to regroup. I started working horses and doing the right thing to get healthy."

There are almost as many Valenzuelas as there are Osmonds. Fernando’s father, Martin, was one of six brothers to ride or train horses. Fernando won a handful of stakes races since he began his career at 18. With fewer than 1,000 career wins and less than $20 million in earnings in more than two decades of riding, Fernando’s best year was 1994 when his mounts earned more than $4 million.

He rode in Saudi Arabia in the winter of 1997 and spring of 1998 for Prince Faisal bin Khalid Abdul Aziz, but no trainer has been knocking Fernando’s door down to give him a leg up since.

Valenzuela recognizes he will never be on a Hall of Fame ballot, like Milo was (the regular rider of the five-time Horse of the Year Kelso was enshrined before he died at the age of 74 three months ago). Nor will Fernando be as effusive or eminent as the oft-suspended and demonized Patrick, his 47-year-old kinsman who has been banished from riding in California and now plies his trade in Louisiana.

"I saw Patrick about a month ago," Fernando said. "He told me he was going to stay in Southern California until he got re-licensed, but I guess they won’t give him a hearing until March, so he went back to Louisiana. I saw where he won a race for trainer Ray Sibille the other day."

Meanwhile, Fernando pursues his dream.

"Eventually, I am going to come back, no doubt about it," he said. "I feel like I want to be in it for the long run, and as long as I’m healthy, I’m going to ride."


Locks for Eclipse Awards, to be announced next Monday, Jan. 18: apprentice jockey, Christian Santiago Reyes; trainer, Steve Asmussen; steeplechase horse, Mixed Up; male turf horse, Gio Ponti; older female, Zenyatta; three-year-old filly, Rachel Alexandra; three-year-old male, Summer Bird; two-year-old male, Lookin At Lucky; and Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra. I expect to bat 1,000 … Watching the Eagles get mauled twice by Dallas last week was pure torture. An offensive scheme like Andy Reid’s that allows an opponent to have the ball twice as long as you do should have the code name, "Water Boarding."