So far, so good in Pat Valenzuela’s final comeback

Jan 22, 2002 4:15 AM

It has been nearly a month since Patrick Valenzuela began his latest comeback and so far, it’s been a classic example of “no news is good news.”

He has not taken off any mounts. He has not called in sick. He has not been late for his riding assignments.

“There haven’t been any problems,” said one racing official, “but I think he recognizes this is his last chance. After six or seven times, he ought to.”

Valenzuela’s career has been marred by suspensions for substance abuse. His most recent ban came on February 11, 2000, and stood for 22 months, until he was granted a conditional license and returned to the saddle last December 26.

Before that suspension, he credited his resurrection to religious faith, and preached to anyone within earshot that his fidelity would overcome future crises. It didn’t.

At last, Valenzuela realizes he must be accountable and responsible for his actions. There is a sense of seriousness that was not present before. He is no longer in denial. The religious crutch he leaned on in the past has been discarded. Always ingratiating, the 39-year-old jockey knows that one more misadventure and his riding days are over.

As agreed upon in the pact with the California Horse Racing Board that enabled him to resume riding, Valenzuela must undergo random drug testing by the CHRB. He provides urine samples and is given breathalyzer tests for illegal morsels ranging from methamphetamine to rock cocaine.

“I check in with them (CHRB) on a daily basis every day that there’s racing,” Valenzuela said, “just like it says in the contract. I’ve been following all the rules they laid down for me and things have been really going well. It’s been smooth, so I don’t foresee any problems in the future. We’ll just take it one day at a time and do the best with what we’ve got.”

Valenzuela, a winner of six Breeders’ Cup races and the 1989 Kentucky Derby aboard Sunday Silence, had only four wins from 79 mounts through 20 days of the 85-day Santa Anita meet. But he is not discouraged. He is realistic.

“I’ve won four races and had a lot of seconds (10), but business is picking up,” he said. “I’m averaging about four mounts a day so I’m very happy. Of course, I’m not getting the best horses, but that’s to be expected. It’s better than what I thought. This is a very forgiving industry and the trainers have been putting me on some decent horses and I’m sure in the future they’re going to be giving me better horses. I’m happy to be riding again and I didn’t expect to be doing even this well so early. I thought I’d be struggling to get mounts right now, but Nick (agent Nick Cosato) and I are doing the best we can.”

While Patrick understands that resisting temptation ultimately depends on him and him alone, he appreciates any support he can get.

“People should recognize that substance abuse, like a physical ailment, is a disease,” he said. “It has to be fought on a daily basis. We have to put our best foot forward and go on. The support the Winners Foundation (an Arcadia-based assistance program for alcohol and drug abuse problems within the California horse racing industry, spearheaded by Don Murray) has made a big difference. They’ve always been there to support me and this last time ”” let’s hope it’s the last time ”” I’ve been very open to their guidance and their suggestions. In the past, I’ve always wanted to do it Patrick’s way, and that always got me into bad spots. I’m very fortunate today. Don’s been very supportive and very helpful. It’s been very difficult, but I’m doing it one day at a time. I want to thank my friends and family and the Winners Foundation. They have stuck by me and always offered to help.

“Nobody can do it but yourself, but it helps to have support. It helps that people in racing can relate to what I’m going through and are there to talk to.”

So far, so good.

Support is wonderful, but Patrick Valenzuela ultimately is the lone warrior in this decades-old battle. As trainer Vladmir Cerin put it: “Last time, Patrick believed in religion. He doesn’t need that now. Patrick is his own religion. He must believe in himself.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: Valenzuela lit up the tote board when he piloted Steriopticon to a $117.60 victory in Sunday’s sixth race, triggering a $330,332.60 Pick Six payoff to two tickets ”¦ Siphonic lost all chance when he went to his knees at the start as the 1-10 favorite in the Santa Catalina Stakes, and the Kentucky Derby future book favorite did well to finish second, beaten 5½ lengths by Labamta Babe. The two are expected to meet again in the March 17 San Felipe Stakes, but you read it here first: Siphonic will be favored again, and Labamta Babe will beat him again. The Bobby Frankel-trained son of 1986 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Skywalker simply drew away with authority when Siphonic came to him in the stretch. Siphonic might have been closer because he stumbled badly breaking from the No. 2 post, but he was not ”” repeat, was not ”” going to beat Labamta Babe on this day . . . Here’s one for Ripley. Leading trainer Bill Spawr saddled two horses in last Wednesday’s fifth race, Hezacatseye, ridden by 18-year-old apprentice Elvis Trujillo, and Fast N Fab, ridden by Spawr’s mainstay, 55-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr. When the trainer approached Trujillo to give pre-race instructions in the paddock, Spawr was nonplused when Trujillo shrugged and said, ”˜No English.’ “That’s all he said,” Spawr said. “I didn’t know he didn’t speak English, so I turned to Laffit and asked him to help me out.” Pincay complied. Laffit, like Trujillo, a native of Panama, translated Spawr’s instructions perfectly. Trujillo won by a nose. Pincay finished third.