Racing’s prodigal Pat returns

November 13, 2007 7:41 AM
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Old-time movie buffs remember Lon Chaney as "The Man of 1,000 Faces." Contemporary racing fans know Patrick Valenzuela as "The Jockey with 1,000 Graces."

Actually, Valenzuela hasn’t been forgiven 1,000 times. It just seems that way. Due to suspensions for riding infractions and substance abuse, plus down time for injuries and self-imposed exiles, the 45-year-old rider has missed some seven years in the saddle, according to one writer’s research. Since he rode his first winner on Nov. 10, 1978, that means more than 23 percent of his career has been lost through various indiscretions.

Now, he’s back again, for the umpteenth time. After not riding for nearly a year, since Nov. 26, 2006, while recovering from injuries, according to Valenzuela, he recently resumed riding at Zia Park in New Mexico, not far from Colorado, where he was born. The California Horse Racing Board, citing his past record and saying it required a signed contract that met its conditions, would not grant him a license at the time. But unencumbered New Mexico did. It is expected that once the parties involved complete the legal maze, Valenzuela will be riding again in California, perhaps even as we speak.

Horsemen and fans, ever willing to give dispensation, can’t wait.

 "I think he’ll make an impact again, and it will be a positive impact," said trainer Vladimir Cerin, long one of Valenzuela’s unflinching supporters. "He rides very hard to the wire, and makes the other jockeys do it, as well."

Those "other jockeys" will include likely 2007 Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez, the nation’s leader in purse money won the past two years at a combined $43 million, and world-class invaders from the East Coast, Julien Leparoux and Rafael Bejarano, who will get first call from Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel.

"I’m certainly glad he’s coming back," said David Bernstein, one of many trainers captivated by Valenzuela’s charm. "He’s a breath of fresh air whenever he comes back, with his positive attitude and his excitement about the game. I haven’t talked to him in the last couple of weeks, but when I did, he couldn’t wait . . . he’s always at the top of his game no matter when he comes back. He’s one of the best.

"Certainly, with Gomez, Leparoux and Bejarano here, we’re going to have a marvelous colony. It will be easy to get good riders, but Pat will have no problem getting mounts."

Jack Carava is another with an open mind on l’Affaire Valenzuela. "I haven’t ridden him a whole lot in the past," said the 41-year-old trainer, who runs one of Southern California’s most productive claiming operations. "But it wasn’t for any reason other than he usually has a mount. He’s entitled to come back and I wish him the best. He’s a nice guy and a great ambassador for the sport. The owners love him and he gets a lot of run out of a horse."

Barry Abrams says Valenzuela’s return means his peers must rachet up their games and relinquish the status quo. "I think riders like (Victor) Espinoza and (Corey) Nakatani will have to elevate their efforts, and it will affect others, too, like Michael Baze, to maintain his place," he said. "If some jockeys are riding at 50 percent of their capabilities on cheap horses and only save their best when they’re on good horses, that will change. Now, they’ll have to care because the new riders will be hungry. Everyone should benefit from the competition."

But Bob Baffert tendered a caveat. "P. Val is his own best agent," Baffert said, "but he’s getting older and every comeback is tougher for him, even though he’s still a very talented rider."

You don’t have to sell that to Tom Knust, Valenzuela’s current agent who represented him in the past.

"Gomez, Bejarano and Leparoux are very good riders," Knust said, giving credit where credit is due, while not diminishing his client’s status. "But Pat will be fine. Pat’s Pat."