Patrick Valenzuela, pariah, paradox, pardonable.
Call him what you will, he’s back.
With more suspensions than the Golden Gate Bridge, the 42-year-old jockey has resumed a career marred by nearly a dozen bans related to substance abuse. At Santa Anita on Jan. 15, he rode for the first time since last July 1, when Del Mar stewards ruled him off through Dec. 31, 2004, and recommended he "not be considered for future licensing . . . in any capacity."
In other words, the jockey who on so many occasions had cried wolf, bear, lion and any other carnivore you might want to mention, was in the Last Chance Saloon.
But legal loopholes being what they are these days, Valenzuela and his barrister appealed the suspension and an administrative law judge recommended that Valenzuela’s case had not been fairly adjudicated. The California Horse Racing Board acquiesced and voila! P. Val is back.
The majority of Valenzuela’s fellow riders look upon him as an outcast, a guy who continuously flaunts the law. They feel there is a double standard, that he has had far too many chances and abused the system.
Owners and trainers, on the other hand, have received him lustily, like a lady of the evening welcoming a splurging sailor who has been at sea for six months.
One exception to the shunning jockey society is Garrett Gomez. Gomez has been in the demonic dungeon before. His most recent battle against substance abuse cost him nearly two years in the saddle. Still young at 33, Gomez ballooned to 147 pounds during his extended binge, making several aborted attempts to right the ship before finding the path to paradise.
"Patrick and I are on speaking terms," Gomez said. "Everybody deserves a right to work. Pat’s just trying to make a living. I’ve been through it myself so in one sense I can fault him, yet I understand where he’s coming from, too. When I came back, everybody accepted me because I think they knew I worked hard to get back to where I was. But Patrick’s Patrick and I’m me. We’ve done different things in different ways."
He’s got that straight. Garrett’s flings have been fewer but more extended, Valenzuela’s more frequent and flagrant. The two riders’ wayward paths have crossed before, and not just on the race track.
"I see him in (support) meetings doing what he’s supposed to be doing there," Gomez said. "I know what it’s like. It’s a disease and it’s difficult. When you’re in the grip of your disease you don’t have a choice. Today, he’s got a choice. He can do it right or not, but it controls you; you don’t control it."
Gomez is inclined to do more than commiserate with Valenzuela. He gives him the benefit of the doubt, which is more than almost every rival rider does, not to mention competing agents.
"Apparently he’s been clean enough for a while," Gomez said. "For myself, I know today I have a choice. I can do drugs or not. I can go to places to figure out my problems and deal with them. That’s what programs like Narcotics Anonymous and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) give you, a choice to be free from the active addiction and alcoholism. Today, if I have a problem, I don’t deal with it by drugs. I talk to people and let myself out there."
Joe Steiner is another jockey tolerant of Valenzuela.
"I get along with him fine," said the 40-year-old rider. "We have a decent relationship but he’s his own worst enemy, so I don’t have to sit there and worry about him. I don’t hang out with him. Nobody hangs out with him, but basically jockeys are all buddies. We’re like brothers. There’s a camaraderie in the jocks’ room. Across the country, you’ll find most jockeys are friends with each other. But Pat’s an independent person and good for him."
Veteran agent Richie Silverstein, whose long-time client is Martin Pedroza, begs to differ.
"The NBA has rules for drug violators calling for a suspension of six months on a first offense, two years on a second and banishment from the league for a third," Silverstein said. "I emphasize that this is not a statement specifically against Patrick, but more for the CHRB (California Horse Racing Board) to set consistent guidelines (for drug infractions). Other riders in the past have had personal problems that led to alcohol or drug abuse. Some were ruled off five years, some forever.
"If the Board had made Valenzuela’s latest ban a learning experience for him, at least there would have been an upside. But Patrick is riding again now. He may or may not stay. He never has before. If he doesn’t, they say, ”˜Well, this is his last chance.’ But the last three were his last chance.
"My biggest complaint is not so much that he’s back; it’s what happens if another rider has a first offense? Will he be punished as much as Pat was for his 10th offense? I’ve always felt the main issue was Patrick being denied a chance to make a living. He could have done that without riding in races if, for example, he had been given an opportunity to work horses and earn an exercise rider’s salary of six or
seven -hundred dollars a week. I think he would have benefitted more if the Board had done that. He wouldn’t have had to sit out, he would have been licensed and he might have appreciated the $16,000 to $20,000 paychecks (he earned every week as a jockey) a little more.
"The only thing learned from this latest episode is that Patrick beat the system again."
There will be no trickle down affect in the jockey colony when Alex Solis and Corey Nakatani return next month.
"It will be like a bunch of people waiting to get on an elevator," says Silverstein. "The doors will open and only so many will fit inside. The rest will be left out. Iggy Puglisi and Octavio Vergara already have left to ride in the Bay Area. Business for Solis and Nakatani should basically pick up where it left off so don’t be surprised if more riders leave."
”¡ Las Vegas native Nick (The Sarge) Hines is known for his bold display of patriotism, but get this: When you call the trainer on his phone and get a recorded message, you hear the Marine Corps Hymn in the background.
”¡ If Keystone State teams Philadelphia and Pittsburgh had won their NFL conference championships, they would have gone on to meet in the Su-Pa. Bowl.