Bejarano goes West, becomes best

December 31, 2007 6:54 AM
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A jockey could do worse than say no to Bobby Frankel. He could say no and then give him the finger.

But that would be foolhardy. Messin’ with Frankel even on his best day can be risky. So when Frankel made Rafael Bejarano an offer he couldn’t refuse, the 25-year-old jockey from Panama nodded, "Si, si" and moved his tack from the East Coast to Santa Anita, where Frankel is the leader in career victories with 876. Bejarano will be 26 on June 23, 2008.

Even though in the past he’s had limited mounts at Santa Anita, Bejarano already knows his way around the storied Arcadia track. He won six races there on April 8, 2006. Had he won instead of finishing second that day on Point Determined in the Santa Anita Derby, he would have tied Laffit Pincay Jr.’s record of seven wins in one day.

"I came here especially to ride for Bobby Frankel," Bejarano said in his best broken English. "He’s giving me the opportunity to ride great horses, not just good horses, but great horses, and I think that’s going to help my career a lot. It will help my business overall and push me to another level."

Not that he isn’t near the apex already. With earnings approaching $16 million at year’s end, he ranked fifth nationally in purse money won, behind Garrett Gomez, Robby Albarado, John Velazquez and Cornelio Velasquez, pretty lofty company. Competition will be keen too at Santa Anita, where there are more good jockeys than there are vowels in the names of players on the pro tennis tour.

Much credit for Bejarano’s achievements goes to his agent, Joe Ferrer.

"I’ve been working for Bejarano going on four years," Ferrer said. "We were leading rider at Aqueduct. We rode at Keeneland, Churchill, New York and Gulfstream in the winter, three years in a row. We decided to come to California this year because Frankel asked us.

"Rafael is a natural. He’s got great hands and he’s good in any type of race. Horses run for him and he’s light. He only weighs 105 pounds, so he doesn’t have to reduce, and that’s a plus. It’s going to lengthen his career."

Bejarano doesn’t expect this invasion to be easy, because he recognizes Santa Anita’s jockey colony is one of the best in recent memory. But he’s never backed down from a challenge.

"There are a lot of good jockeys here," Bejarano said, "and good trainers, too, so that should help me. Competition will be stiff, but that means I’ll have to try harder, and I’m OK with that."

Bejarano’s style is flexible. He rides all horses and courses well and needed little or no adjustments going East to West. Anyone who saw Bejarano’s last-to-first nose victory aboard the Frankel-trained Double Trouble on Dec. 29, when the jockey split horses in deep stretch, wedging through a seemingly impassable crevice, knows this is a rider with world-class technique.

"It is somewhat different in Southern California," Bejarano said, "because here they ride pretty tight and you have to find room to be clear, but I don’t think I have to change my style too much. I ride my race, but at the same time, try to keep everybody else comfortable and not be reckless. You have to be competitive, but safety is the first priority."

Frankel and Bejarano have their act together, to the point that the Hall of Fame trainer generally offers little in the way of pre-race yada yada yada.

"Bobby and I don’t discuss too much, because he knows I do my homework and read the Racing Form," Bejarano said. "I know what to do in the race, but sometimes a horse will have a special quirk or habit, or I’ll be riding one of his horses for the first time In that case, Bobby will let give me instructions. But he has a lot of confidence in me."

That’s a given--for now. Just don’t screw up.

The homestretch

The final chapter in the troubled career of jockey Patrick Valenzuela likely came to an end after 28 years on Dec. 28 when the California Horse Racing Board terminated the 45-year-old rider’s conditional license after he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol by the Upland (California) Police Department on Dec. 20.

For trainer Mike Mitchell, long one of Valenzuela’s supporters, the last straw had come earlier, after Valenzuela returned from a layoff of nearly a year while recovering from injuries.

"I told Pat and his agent (Tom Knust) that I had no intention of riding him when he came back," Mitchell said. "I felt it just wasn’t fair after being off for a year to expect to pick up where he left off at my barn, while during his absence, young riders like Tyler Baze, Michael Baze and Joe Talamo were here 5:30 every morning ready to work my horses."

Valenzuela, who was winless with three mounts at Santa Anita on opening day, Dec. 26, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or greater when arrested, according to police.

In a release on Dec. 28 by the CHRB citing conditions of Valenzuela’s license, it read in part that "Valenzuela abstain from the consumption and/or possession of any alcohol and shall not enter any public place where alcohol is the principal commodity for sale or use; whereas, upon finding of a material violation of any condition of the license, the license shall be subject to immediate termination . . . it is hereby ordered that Valenzuela’s license be, and hereby is, terminated."

Sadly, foremost memories of Valenzuela will not be of his beguiling behavior or winning a Kentucky Derby or seven Breeders’ Cup races. His lamentable legacy will be one of fighting demons and denial.