For the past year, Patrick Valenzuela has dominated the competitive Southern California circuit like no jockey in two decades. He’s even being mentioned as a candidate for an Eclipse Award, no easy feat in the Jerry Bailey era.
P. Val won championships at the 2003/04 Santa Anita winter/spring meet; Hollywood Park’s spring/summer meet; Del Mar; Oak Tree, and Hollywood’s autumn meet. Chris McCarron was the last to achieve the sweep in 1983.
To continue his streak at the 84-day Santa Anita meet currently in session through April 18, the 42-year-old Colorado native will have to do so spotting his foes a two-week head start.
Valenzuela is serving 13 days of suspensions accumulated and stayed from earlier this year. Through the first eight days of the meet, he is allowed to ride only in designated races, meaning graded stakes events. Through the last five days, he cannot ride in any races. That’s the arrangement reached by Valenzuela, his attorney, Dan Calabria, and the stewards, according to his agent, Nick Cosato.
Which rider will benefit most from Valenzuela’s ban remains to be seen. It’s an unprecedented scenario, says Richie Silverstein, the omniscient agent who represents Iggy Puglisi and Martin Pedroza, the latter fresh from a sensational run at Hollywood Park.
"It’s a new game and anything that happened before Christmas day you can wash away," Silverstein said.
Corey Nakatani starts the meet with P. Val’s agent, so he might be able to cover Patrick on some horses he loses during his suspension.
Gary Stevens has been semi-retired for six or seven years, so he’ll pick his spots. Julie Krone and Ryan Fogelsonger are temporarily out (with injuries).
"I’d say you should look to the old standard bearers, like Alex Solis, Victor Espinoza and Mike Smith, who was red hot the last few days at Hollywood. Like I said, from the day after Christmas until about Feb. 14, the competition will be unbelievable. Guys like (Kent) Desormeaux, Nakatani and Martin are making strong comebacks. Emile Ramsammy is back. But Patrick will be gone only 13 days and when he returns, he’ll fall back into his niche. So will Julie when she returns. I’d say around Valentine’s Day it will be business as usual.
"But if anybody’s going to benefit right now I’d look for Nakatani, maybe Smith, and Solis, because he’s always a force to be reckoned with, especially at Santa Anita where he rides for trainers who gear for this meet."
THE HOMESTRETCH: Two fresh faces in the Santa Anita jocks’ room are Larry Sterling Jr. and Danny Sorenson. Sterling, a fixture in the Midwest, is the son of trainer Larry Sterling Sr., who trained Vigors to win the 1978 Santa Anita Handicap. "I grew up in Southern California and my dad trained here for 20 years," said the 34-year-old Sterling, who has a home in San Dimas, not far from the track. "I’ll probably ride here for two months, then return to Sportsman’s Park when it opens on Feb. 25." The other "newcomer" is 45-year-old Seattle native Sorenson who has been sidelined nearly three months with a right shoulder fracture suffered in a freak mishap during a post parade at Fairplex Park on Sept. 17. "I’m healthy, feel great and been working a lot of horses," Sorenson said. "Now it’s just a matter of getting some good horses to ride."
. . . D. Wayne Lukas on training 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, now that owner Michael Paulson has decided to bring her back to the races under Lukas’ direction: "Oh, absolutely (I’d love to train her). It’s a challenge in a lot of ways but anybody would like to get her. But it’s a tough challenge because she’s done so well (14 wins from 16 starts under dismissed trainer Laura de Seroux) that you want to keep going if you can. But I’ve done OK with some other mares, like Lady’s Secret, Spain and Serena’s Song."
. . . Add News You Can Bet On: In our column of Dec. 16-22, trainer Bob Hess Jr. said of Fort Point, "He’s sitting on a win on opening day." The son of Carson City owned in part by Pete Rose won by 3Â½ lengths and paid a generous $7.60 as the favorite. The gelding was claimed for $32,000 by trainer Rafael Beccera.
. . . Former Phillies slugger Richie Allen, a long-time racing afficionado who once owned horses, says he has no regrets about missing out on the megabucks contemporary players get. "I had more fun when I played (more than 25 years ago)," the Wampum, Pa. native said. "The game was different back then."