“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she walks into mine” and, of course, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
But most often I find myself quoting DeNiro, the bus driver-dad from “A Bronx Tale,” telling his son—words that went unheeded in the real world, unfortunately—as he summed up the life of Sonny, the respected neighborhood wise guy; “wasted talent,” DeNiro called him.
Having won 15 riding titles on the ultra-demanding Southern California racing circuit, two Classics aboard Sunday Silence, seven Breeders’ Cups and 4,333 races in all, his mounts earning nearly $164 million, hardly qualifies Patrick Valenzuela as having a wasted career. But, oh, for what might have been.
“PVal,” as he is known, announced his retirement on Friday. Not being based on the West Coast, I never got to know him as well as I know some of the East Coast riders. But I remember two conversations.
One was on the Gulfstream Park backstretch in the winter of 1997. Valenzuela was in the throes of one of his many comebacks, the result of his lifetime battle with substance abuse, one which, more often than not, he lost. Unlike a few others in this business, I’m not passing judgment on this aspect of his life, but it is a well-documented fact.
Just having taken a buyout from Newsday, I was looking for a second career. We met outside of Nick Zito’s Gulfstream barn, Zito having vouched for my integrity and “expertise.”
I believed he never lost any of his God-given talent. He wasn’t getting many mounts that winter, was his own agent, going barn to barn and volunteering to work horses for a chance to ride one back in the afternoon. Not many wins but there were plenty of in-the-money finishes on 30-1 shots.
He was the sweetest man; warm, engaging, and humble but he declined my offer, saying he probably would be better off with someone who was more experienced as an agent. I could hardly disagree.
The second time was years later in the Turf & Field Club at Aqueduct Race Track. PVal had won a stakes race earlier that afternoon and was celebrating with the connections. I can’t remember the name of the stakes he won but I noted that club soda was his beverage of choice.
He remembered me from our first meeting, we sat for a while and he made small talk with Toni and me. I told him how proud I was of what he accomplished and wished him continued good luck with his comeback. I haven’t seen or spoken with him since.
However, I can still empathize. Even if I don’t personally struggle with those demons myself, I have some friends who do, and they're working through those issues, one day at a time. To their credit they’re winning, but not without extreme sacrifice and discipline.
Even though rival jockeys can relate to the pressures of winning, making weight and the like, most were far less forgiving. It’s dangerous out there, and jockeys don’t want other jockeys riding under the influence. Considering the possible consequences, who could blame?
But I must confide that in the 1980s, when cocaine was the drug of choice, a trainer whispered to me something about one particularly jockey who was heavily rumored to be a cocaine user: “I’d rather have him come into the paddock smiling and whistling rather than subdued; I felt like I was getting his best effort.”
There were many suspensions for substance-abuse. Valenzuela was always reinstated but eventually lost his conditional license following a drunken driving arrest in 2007.
But I knew PVal best as a horseplayer. He’s in my personal pantheon of the greatest riders I have ever seen, ranking up there on the same level as retirees Angel Cordero Jr. and Jerry Bailey: They were impact riders.
On horseback, the true greats give their employers and horseplayers confidence, as if they were getting an edge that the competition didn’t have. The great ones seldom err in a role where the smallest misjudgment can be the difference between victory and defeat.
It takes special ability to bust speed horses away from the barrier and “manage” the fractions sensibly. The very best of them control the race flow then keep those horses alive when all it wants to do is find a place to lie down. A great rider makes you feel like you’re stealing money when you cash a bet.
Valenzuela, now 49, cited recent gall bladder surgery, chronic knee problem,s and an ever present battle making weight as the reasons why he decided to retire. While cynics might rightfully question if there were a fourth reason, the Hollywood stewards are on record saying that Valenzuela passed his most recent random drug test.
Valenzuela’s record could have been--very well should have been--better. But it was still a career worthy of admission in Racing's Hall of Fame. I wouldn’t hold my breath; neither would Valenzuela.
Too bad the pantheon doesn’t have something like a Ty Cobb exception. It is well known that Cobb, a racist, intentionally hurt others on the field of play. PVal mostly hurt himself, and unfortunately is likely to be defined by his disease, not his accomplishments or great ability to ride race horses. So much of that talent, wasted.