If Patrick Valenzuela isn’t the greatest jockey who ever lived, he’s certainly the most resilient.
The guy’s made more comebacks than a boomerang.
His latest came last Sunday, when, after a two-month layoff due to emotional and physical issues, the native of Montrose, Colorado, won the Grade I Woodbine Mile by a neck under 8-1 shot Becrux, an Italian-bred gelding trained by Neil Drysdale.
Such an accomplishment is one for the books. It takes timing, fitness and the eye of the tiger, among other attributes, and even then, is the stuff of a "Seabiscuit" movie. In real life, it’s not done. Unless you’re Patrick Valenzuela.
"He’s one of the greatest riders of all time," said 66-year-old trainer David Bernstein, who conditioned 1994 champion older horse The Wicked North, and presently has Grade I sprint winner Unfurl the Flag and reformed claiming horse Truly A Judge.
"He spent all that time recuperating in a hospital, then works a few horses and he’s fit enough to go to Canada and ride in a mile race against world-class riders and win it with a beautiful ride," Bernstein said with a sense of amazement. "He’s just an unbelievable talent. He might be the greatest who ever lived."
Given an opportunity to retract or modify his seemingly outlandish statement, when asked if he seriously ranked Valenzuela among the likes of Shoemaker, Pincay and Arcaro, Bernstein stood his ground.
"Believe me," he said, "this guy can ride with any of those guys and maybe outride most of them. Look at how much time he missed and he comes back on his first day of riding like he’s never been gone. And he rides a mile, mind you, in a $1 million race and gets the money, on the money, by a neck. I mean, who can do that? Who comes back with his timing in tact like that and the strength in his legs? He doesn’t lose it. The man is a genius."
Bernstein further justified classifying Valenzuela among racing’s elite riders. "He’s got star quality, and racing needs stars," Bernstein said. "Pat’s a producing star. He’s a Hall of Famer, no doubt. Victor Espinoza is a great rider, but he lacks star quality. Shoemaker had it; Arcaro had it. It’s that certain extra something that makes everybody want him to ride."
Valenzuela, who will be 44 on Oct. 17, keeps reinventing himself, despite a dozen suspensions for substance abuse violations since he began his career in 1978. At press time, his status for the Oak Tree meet that begins this week was on hold. Ingrid Fermin, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board, said last week that accounts of Valenzuela’s medical background during his hiatus were needed before they would approve his license. "One of the things in his (provisional) contract says that he would be willing to share the medical history during the time he was gone, and that hasn’t happened yet," she said.
In a statement issued Sunday, Mike Marten, speaking for the CHRB, said: "There have been discussions and the dialogue is continuing as Valenzuela and the CHRB work to resolve some issues. In the meantime, his agent, Tom Knust, has pledged their cooperation, and in the spirit of that cooperation, Patrick was not named on any mounts on opening day."
Neil Papiano, the attorney representing Valenzuela, said prior to Marten’s comments: "What they’re asking for violates the Constitution. It’s not a matter of drugs. It’s a matter of why he was in the hospital, and Fermin wants to make that public, and that’s ridiculous ”¦ he has a license."
"I felt really good," Valenzuela said about the Woodbine victory. "I’m really fit, probably fitter than I’ve ever been. I’m lighter than when I left Hollywood Park (July 16) when I was riding at 119 pounds. Hopefully, I’ll do 116 for Oak Tree. There’s no doubt I’m ready. I’m just doing the right things. I worked three to five horses a day for 10 days before riding Becrux, so I felt very strong on him. The horse ran a great race."
Valenzuela has adhered to a one agent-one jockey edict in the past. His agent, Knust, currently also books mounts for Corey Nakatani, who missed the Woodbine Mile mount on Becrux due to an injury to his right shoulder suffered while working a horse for Bob Hess Jr.
Whether the dual arrangement will continue when Nakatani returns is questionable.
"I haven’t experienced it yet, so we’ll have see (about it) when it happens," Valenzuela said.
The homestretchLava Man will run in the Goodwood Handicap on dirt Oct. 7 and not in Saturday’s Clement L. Hirsch on turf, Doug O’Neill said. "It’s more money ($500,000 to $250,000), it’s on the main track and it gives him an extra week over the main track at Hollywood, where I train." Third choice in the Future Book for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4, Lava Man will face another Classic hopeful in the Goodwood, Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek.
”¡ Richard Mandella on Hollywood’s new Cushion Track: "We’ve just breezed easy over it so far, but I saw the surface and was very pleased. It’s too early to make any firm judgment, but there’s a chance it will make things better for us than they’ve ever been. The first concern is the safety of the horse; then you can worry about how it affects form and handicapping."
Trainer David Hofmans, based at Hollywood, says he’s very happy with the synthetic surface. "I worked several horses on it—they all looked really good," he said. "Sore feet might be a thing of the past." Leading trainer Jeff Mullins is so smitten with the surface he moved his entire barn to Hollywood from Santa Anita.
”¡ Garrett Gomez rides American Oaks winner Wait A While for Todd Pletcher in Saturday’s Yellow Ribbon, and will return to Santa Anita on Oct. 25, then "remain indefinitely," according to his agent, Las Vegas native Ron Anderson.
”¡ This nugget to keep your values straight: No matter how tough life seems, it could be worse. You could play for the Temple football team.
”¡ Once and for all, let’s put this Hall of Fame thing in graphic perspective: Tommy Lasorda is in; Pete Rose isn’t.