Tuesday, April 29, 2003

P. Val's been on top and at bottom


Sober jockey back; he rides Kafwain in Saturday's race

The Associated Press
By Beth Harris
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Patrick Valenzuela's talent was undeniable and his future seemed limitless when he rode Sunday Silence to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 1989.

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Five months later, Valenzuela was suspended for testing positive for cocaine, beginning a descent into drugs and alcohol that plagued him on and off until December 2001.

"I was my worst enemy," he said. "Every time I got to the top, I'd either go AWOL or screw it up some way."

The 40-year-old father of four daughters has had almost as many comebacks as successes in a career that took off in 1980, when he won the Santa Anita Derby at 17.

That's why Valenzuela is thrilled about returning to the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 10 years to ride Kafwain on Saturday.

"This is a chance to win the Triple Crown," he said between races on a recent afternoon at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. "This has been a goal of mine to get back into the 3-year-old picture with a good horse for the Derby."

He rode Kafwain for the first time in last month's Santa Anita Derby, finishing third. Valenzuela lucked into the mount after trainer Bob Baffert got angry with Victor Espinoza's ride in the Louisiana Derby.

"I think we'll win the Derby, no doubt in my mind," said Valenzuela, who is scheduled to arrive in Louisville on Thursday.

"His self-esteem and his confidence is so high that I think the horses know when he's on them," Baffert said. "He's a very upbeat kind of guy. He thinks he's going to win every race he rides. He's not intimidated."

Valenzuela, who rode Union City to a 15th-place finish in the 1993 Kentucky Derby, has always possessed a mix of cockiness and confidence, spurred by his teenage success. Even while he was derailing his career with drugs, alcohol, unexplained absences and run-ins with the police, Valenzuela's engaging smile and playful personality charmed those offended by his misdeeds.

"A lot of people support me, and a lot of people want to see me do well, and a lot of people were glad to see me back," he said. "There's always going to be the doubters out there that are going to be yelling stupid stuff, but I don't listen to that."

Valenzuela's latest comeback is the most successful of a career interrupted seven times because of suspensions. In April, he won his first riding title at Santa Anita with 94 victories, the most since Kent Desormeaux had 112 in 1994-95.

Last year, his 221 victories led Southern California's competitive jockey colony. His purse earnings of $12,544,098 ranked seventh nationally.

So what's different this time?

"I took Patrick's way of living and threw it out the door and started living by somebody else's rules. I try to put the Lord first on a daily basis," he said.

He claims he no longer hangs out with the people who caroused with him, but Valenzuela admits he occasionally thinks about his old demon, cocaine.

"For one instance I thought, 'Wouldn't a line sound good?"' he said.

The impulsive Valenzuela would have indulged. The sober Valenzuela stops the thought when it enters his head and remembers his old existence.

"I'm going to be sitting in a room paranoid as a son of a buck on drugs with nobody in my life, maybe the drug man knocking to bring me some more stuff and take some more money. I don't need that," he said.

"I thank God that I'm able to stop and look at the end result and know that I want my family in my life, I want my sobriety and I want my job."

He attends twice-weekly counseling sessions at Santa Anita and undergoes regular drug testing as conditions for keeping his jockey's license.

"He's got his mind in order," Baffert said.

Valenzuela also has the love of his wife, Valerie. The couple married in November. They dated briefly in 1991 before splitting, then reunited by chance last year when she attended the races and Valenzuela spotted her in the crowd.

"My wife has helped me tremendously, giving me a lot of support," Valenzuela said. "It seems like ever since me and her have been together, things have just been blossoming."

Valenzuela knows fans and detractors are watching to see if he slips yet again. He took off some mounts Friday night at Hollywood Park because of a lingering cold, but he hesitated first.

"I'd rather be in a stretcher before I take the day off because I don't want anybody to start talking," he said.

He wouldn't mind being the talk of Louisville the day after the 129th Derby, either for winning or getting his life straightened out.

"I knew I could do it, just giving myself a chance was the only thing," he said.




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