"We’ve added years to life, not life to years."— George Carlin, 2004.
The unabashed comic is right on in profundity about life in general these days, but imagine how much more profound he could be if he were speaking about horse trainers.
They have no life to speak of, that is if you’re talking about a five-day week and an eight-hour day. Forget about trips to the mall, movies, soccer games with the kids and vacations.
Training thoroughbreds takes all one will give. It’s a vocation with a bottomless pit of need, whether or not a trainer has a passion for his pastime.
Frank Olivares had a passion to train for 12 years. He didn’t win many races, but he had a lot of company. The best trainer going these days loses 70 percent of the time.
Before he trained, Olivares rode for 22 years. He was among the top 10 for 15 of those years, competing with the likes of Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye. In his best year, he finished 17th in purse earnings out of more than 2,500 jockeys nationwide. He won more than 1,700 races in his career, including more than 130 stakes races, with purses surpassing $30 million. He’s a good person, too. In 1977 his peers voted him the prestigious George Woolf Award for his sportsmanship and character on and off the track.
Olivares retired from riding in 1990 to become a trainer. At the age of 54, he recently returned to the saddle. The ungratifying rigors of training just weren’t worth it.
"Business was slow as a trainer and I just didn’t like all the problems that went along with it," said Olivares, currently riding at Santa Anita where he ranked among the all-time leaders with 458 races won.
"You’re always trying to fix something when horses get hurt, always patching them up," he said. "There are so many disappointments. A horse would train really well and then run terrible. You’re always trying to figure out why. Training is really stressful and that’s the part I didn’t like. I loved the training aspect, but not all the problems that went with it. They were just too much, it was very disappointing and I just didn’t enjoy it."
Having trained horses has given Olivares a new appreciation for his former peers. He has great esteem for men like Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert, each at the top of his game.
"I have so much respect for trainers now, because of what they have to go through just to get a horse to the races, and then it’s over in such a short time," Olivares said. "Trainers have it hard. I feel sorry for them, I really do, because it’s a tough profession. You work for months to get a horse ready to run, then it’s all over in a minute and change and you have nothing to show for it."
And since work encompasses much of man’s life, Olivares decided to return to a less-demanding occupation, one that has a greater work/reward ratio.
"You don’t have to live with being a jockey, like you do as a trainer," Olivares said. "As a trainer you’re thinking about the horses 24 hours a day. You go to the barn the next morning, you’re hoping they’re all OK because things can go wrong from one day to the next.
"As a rider, all you think about is riding your next race. It’s a lot easier. It’s a lot more dangerous, but that’s part of the game and you have to live with it."
Danger aside, being a jockey is no ride on a carousel, especially for Olivares, who’s approaching senior citizen status after an absence of 12 years .
"It’s tough to get business because I’m having to prove myself all over," said Olivares, who has lent his name in a promotional vein to the Toll Brothers, builders and developers in Southern California, to generate additional income.
"I see riders out here that I feel I’m much better than, and they’re getting mounts," Olivares said. "It does get frustrating at times but I know I’m good. I think I’m riding better now than I ever have. I know I’m a lot smarter than I was and I feel I’m really riding good races."
His goal now is to add life to his years.
THE HOMESTRETCH: It’s painful to relate, but put a fork in Pat Valenzuela. He’s done. The 41-year jockey whose career has been marked by suspension for substance abuse, riding violations and personal problems, exhausted his final opportunity as a rider when Santa Anita’s stewards suspended his conditional license last Friday pending a hearing, after he violated conditions of a signed contract with the California Horse Racing Board, which, among other things, requires Valenzuela to submit to drug and/or alcohol testing as directed by "any steward."
Valenzuela called in shortly after 1 p.m. last Thursday to steward Ingrid Fermin, saying he twisted an ankle leaving the house and his way to the track and couldn’t ride. As the day wore on and he did not show at the CHRB office as instructed by the steward, investigators called his telephone numbers of record and left him messages. Valenzuela did not appear or return the calls.
Still unable to reach him Friday morning, the stewards issued the suspension, which remains in effect until the hearing. Valenzuela won riding titles at all five major Southern California meets last year and had stayed trouble-free since his return two years ago. Under the conditional license, he was required to appear at the CHRB office every racing day to learn if he would be tested for illegal substances. He would be tested a minimum eight times a month.
"It’s such a waste of talent," said one of the most successful trainers on the circuit who often employed Valenzuela. "This time, he’s finished."