Rail at Hollywood Park seems best way to travel

Jun 24, 2003 7:44 AM

Through June 15 at Hollywood Park, 30 winners were sent out from the No. 1 post position in main track sprints (races under one mile), more than any other post.

In route races on the main track (one mile or over), only two horses had won from post eight and beyond in 41 starts.

Despite the favorable statistic, most trainers dread the rail in sprints. One of the most vocal is Mike Mitchell, third in the current standings with 13 wins and a six-time Hollywood champion.

"Sprinting, I hate the rail, just hate it," said the 55-year-old Mitchell. "If you’re on the outside you can kind of ride your race. But when you draw the one hole you have to go. And if a horse has no speed, I don’t think it really matters. If you have no speed and drop back a little bit, then you’re in a pickle. But if you have no speed and you’re on the outside, then you’re not in trouble. Going long, give me any post (and) it’s really fine. I’m kind of like a Sandy Hawley guy: give me the outside, get me in the clear, let me lose a length or so but don’t let me get shut off."

Patrick Valenzuela, who won nine races the weekend of June 14-15 to take the lead over Victor Espinoza, says the inside is not a disadvantage if a horse has speed.

"It depends on the horse, and whether the race is a sprint or a route," the 40-year-old Valenzuela said. "If you have a speed horse, you’re going to get a good break, get a good position and put your horse wherever you want to be. If I’m stuck way outside and have a couple speed horses inside me, I try to outrun them to the first turn. If not, I try to sit right outside them and get in the catbird seat.

"The pace scenario also is important. If you have all the speed in the world in a sprint and you’re on the inside, it doesn’t matter who’s outside of you. If you get a good break and get control of the race, that’s OK. If I’m on the outside and there’s speed on the inside, I’d rather sit right outside of them, depending on if your horse will go by horses or not."

Like most riders, Valenzuela studies Racing Form past performances of races in which he rides.

"You have to do your homework," said Valenzuela, who is recognized as a peerless gate rider. He puts his horse into the race early and rarely is compromised by a slow start.

"I thank God I’m able to get good breaks most of the time and I ride a lot of speed horses, so I try to dictate the pace or make the pace of the race and set it up the way I want," Valenzuela said. "Being a good gate rider is a God-given talent and I want to keep using it the best I can. But I ride horses as well coming from off the pace, too. I’m at my peak now and hope to stay there."

Mitchell, who has ridden Valenzuela with success for years, concurs, but still likes to avoid drawing the inside in sprints.

"Pat is just riding super, but when you’re on the rail (in a sprint), you just have to go," Mitchell said. "Like Patrick says it depends on your horse, but you’ve got to have a lot of speed to overcome the inside and sometimes a horse doesn’t want to run that way."

That said, if any jockey can overcome biases, it’s Pat Valenzuela.

"I’ve never seen anybody break a horse like him," Mitchell said. "I remember Gary Stevens telling me one time that Pat was just born with the ability to break fast from the gate, where a lot of riders have to work at it, but Pat is just a natural. He could put Silky Sullivan on the lead. In fact, in some instances, you have to be careful because if you have a really good speed horse, and Pat’s riding it, you worry about him going too fast early."

But not lately, according to Mitchell.

"Pat’s more seasoned now," he said. "In all the years I’ve ridden him, he really rides a smart race now. He’s always been good, but (recently) I’ve watched him hone his skills and be more patient and stay out of trouble. He knows the horse he’s on and he won’t use him up early if he doesn’t have to. He’s just a great rider."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Add news you can bet on: In the May 13-19 editions of Âí­GamingToday, the headline on our column was, "”˜Maker’ overconfident, under trained for Derby?," quoting trainers we interviewed after Empire Maker’s defeat as the Kentucky Derby favorite. They stated he was under trained for the Run for the Roses by Bobby Frankel, who was confident the colt could win despite missing training due to a bruised foot. Frankel pooh-poohed any such criticism before the Derby, but after Empire Maker won the Belmont, Frankel fessed up and admitted he should have trained his horse harder for the Derby. Add news you can bet on II: Although we did not pick the Belmont winner, we did hit the exacta cold on the pre-Belmont odds, making Funny Cide even money and Empire Maker 2-1, their precise odds in the third leg of the Triple Crown . . . It’s remarkable that every time I get behind someone at an automatic mutuel machine, they’re deliberating over a paltry $3 voucher and standing there like they’re reading "War and Peace" before they make their play.