Valdivia jockeys for position on national scene

Nov 6, 2001 3:49 AM

Laffit Pincay Jr. is riding like a teenager, but he’ll be 55 on Dec. 29. Eddie Delahoussaye is 50 and has been battling sinus problems for years. Chris McCarron has won more money than any jockey in history, but he is 46. Gary Stevens is 37 and nursing arthritic knees.

Each of the aforementioned could retire at a moment’s notice, and when he does, a young lion like Jose Valdivia Jr. will be ready for the transition and weave comfortably into the changing fabric of the Southern California jockey colony.

Valdivia stepped into the national spotlight on Oct. 27, when he piloted Val Royal to a 1½ length victory in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont Park.

In a career of only seven years, Valdivia registered his most significant victory. The native of Lima, Peru, who will be 27 on Dec. 8, was the regular rider of the ill-fated Cal-bred sprint star, Big Jag, and is the nephew of Fernando Toro, a highly successful rider more than two decades ago. Jose’s father was a prominent jockey in South America.

But winning a Breeders’ Cup race gave Valdivia international recognition.

“Princess Rooney won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (the inaugural running in 1984) when I had Delahoussaye,” said agent Craig O’Bryan, who books Valdivia’s mounts. “Eddie wasn’t that well-established when I got his book back in 1980, until he got on a horse named Bold ”˜n Determined for Neil Drysdale. She won the 1980 Kentucky Oaks and Santa Anita Oaks and she put him on the map. Hopefully, Val Royal will do that for Jose. This win certainly gives me more satisfaction, since it’s a kid like Jose.”

O’Bryan, whose father, George was a successful agent, at one time handling business for the likes of Manuel Ycaza, Johnny Sellers, Don Pierce, Johnny Adams, Ralph Neves and Pincay, has had his run of misfortune.

“I’ve had bad luck in big races,” Craig said. “Eddie rode The Bart in the first Arlington Million and John Henry beat him a nose; I had (Alex) Solis when he rode La Spia, who got beat a head (at 29-1 in the 1991 Juvenile Fillies); I had Solis when he rode Bertrando (in the 1991 Juvenile) and a horse called Arazi beat him five lengths. And in the 1991 Classic, Alex rode Lively One for Charlie Whittingham and he came flying to finish fourth at 19-1, beaten two lengths and a nose.”

Agents deal constantly with rejection in one form or another, especially if they don’t represent a marquee rider. But O’Bryan has learned to take it in stride.

“It doesn’t really get frustrating,” O’Bryan said. “Some of the older riders have their set clients. Jose is different from McCarron and Eddie in that he’ll ride seven or eight (races) a day. Some of those guys are at an age in their careers where they pretty much want to limit themselves. There is kind of a changing of the guards taking place. There are openings for young, upcoming guys who want to work to be in the top five.”

Valdivia is striving towards that goal.

“Alex worked hard and Eddie would be here if you needed him,” said the 51-year-old O’Bryan, who has represented Valdivia for a bit more than a year. “The guys who get ahead are the guys who work hardest, and I’d say nobody works harder than Jose, and I’ve been in the business about 30 years. I enjoy it. There’s been more good times than bad, but there’ve been some slow times.”

Julio Canani, who trains Val Royal, is considering one of two races for the French-bred’s next start: the $1.8 million Hong Kong Mile on Dec.16 or the $500,000 Citation Handicap at 11/16 miles at Hollywood Park on Nov. 24.

Either way, Canani will give Valdivia a leg up. The charismatic trainer is not enamored with a rider’s reputation.

“Jose is at my barn every morning at 6:30 when I start to work my horses,” Canani said. “That’s how he got the mount on Val Royal. Hard work. This horse doesn’t need a big-name rider. Let me tell you this about jockeys. If you’ve got the (best) horse, you’re a great rider. Did you ever see a jockey carry a horse on his shoulders and take him across the wire?”

So will Team Canani take Val Royal to the Orient for his next start?

“Hong Kong? I don’t know,” Canani said. “But it’s a lot of money.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: Horses making the transition from Santa Anita’s surface to Hollywood’s shouldn’t have much difficulty, but bettors should be advised that the jury is still out, according to trainer Ron Ellis. “This summer, they had Hollywood a lot tighter than they have in the past, and the horses from Santa Anita ran a lot better,” Ellis said. “What it will be like this meet is anyone’s guess. The first few days, see how fast they run, and if their times are slower than you’d expect at Santa Anita, the horses training at Santa Anita are going to have trouble again. But Hollywood was quite a bit tighter this summer and most of the shippers from Santa Anita did a little bit better. The turf courses probably are similar, although Santa Anita’s has been pretty firm because they didn’t want it to get chopped up without that rye grass in there. If it’s kept too soft, it gets dug up easily, so there probably won’t be that big a switch (between the two grass courses). At Hollywood in the fall, the weather is a bit cooler, so the course doesn’t get quite as hard. It’s the old thing, ”˜Horses for courses.’ Horse that have shown they like it at Hollywood probably will continue to run good there, and that’s important to watch for when horses switch.” . . . New rider Gary Stevens voluntarily took the hit on Officer’s second-place finish as the 2-5 favorite in the California Cup Juvenile, just a week after the son of Bertrando suffered his first loss in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. . . Bob Baffert plans to run Officer in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 15.