Monday, December 31, 2007
Is This the End of PVal?
One morning late last week, I was tipped off that Pat Valenzuela, the jockey with 99 lives, had been pinched for drunken driving several hours after riding the opening-day card at Santa Anita. I called Tom Knust, Valenzuela's agent, for confirmation, but Knust said that he didn't know anything about the report. A classy ex-Marine who has a bullet hole and a Purple Heart among his Vietnam souvenirs, Knust learned the racing game from the ground up, and once labored at the knee of Jimmy Kilroe in Santa Anita's racing office. Not long after my call, he went over to Valenzuela's house, where the troubled rider confessed that there was indeed a DUI. Knust called me back to say that I had the story half-right: His jockey had actually been cited by the police the week before.
Knust quit as Valenzuela's agent, a decision that was academic, because the California Horse Racing Board had already voided the jockey's conditional license. A stipulation in the license was that Valenzuela wasn't supposed to touch even a thimble of beer, let alone paint the town.
Nothing changes. The 45-year-old Valenzuela, who has a 20-year history of alcohol and drug abuse, has the same old MO of keeping his agents in the dark. Knust is just one more who's become the last to know.
In the fall of 1989, Valenzuela was booked to ride Hawkster, the favorite in a $500,000 race at Santa Anita. A few hours before the race, Ron McAnally, the trainer of the horse, was approached by several agents who were lobbying for the mount.
"What are you talking about?" McAnally said. "I've got PVal."
"No, you don't," the trainer was told.
Deputizing, Russell Baze rode Hawkster to victory in 2:22 4/5, a world record for 1 1/2 miles on turf.
Posing for pictures in the winner's circle, McAnally was still livid about being stiffed by Valenzuela.
"Neither of them (Valenzuela and one of his longer-lasting agents, Jerry Ingordo) even contacted me," McAnally said. "I had to find out from the other agents."
That night, I reached Ingordo at his home. He was hotter that McAnally.
"I didn't know Pat was off his mounts till I called the racing office to find out who won the first race," Ingordo said.
Valenzuela told the stewards that he was ill with flu. It was the third time at the meet that he had taken off.
"He missed mounts on Lively One and Ruhlmann, very important horses," Ingordo said, "and I fell for his excuses. Now he misses a race on one of the best grass horses in the country. I can't work for this guy anymore. He's got no conscience."
Not long after the Hawkster race, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine. Consequently, Chris McCarron was astride Sunday Silence, Valenzuela's Kentucky Derby winner, as the colt won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.
In 1993, Valenzuela made another sick call to the stewards and McCarron rode Fraise to victory in the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. Valenzuela didn't call his agent, Nick Cosato, until the next day. Cosato dumped him. "That was the third time he's done that to me," the agent said. "I'm a professional, and I can't be honest with my clients when my rider treats me like this."
Valenzuela's contretemps on the road are legendary. He flew to Baltimore to ride Sunny Blossom, a fine sprinter, in a race at Pimlico. Trainer Eddie Gregson, sitting in the stands with the horse's owner, was paged to report to the jockeys' room. Valenzuela was in his hotel room, he said, but unable to ride. Another time, expected to ride in a big race in Chicago, Valenzuela took a plane from Los Angeles to Dallas by mistake and missed the assignment. In Florida, asked to fill a vial for a urine test, he turned in a specimen which, according to the chemists, didn't come from a human.
A few years ago, Valenzuela shaved his head and his pubic area, preventing a lab from running a drug test on a strand of his hair. During a hearing at Del Mar, one of the stewards, a woman, listened to testimony while glossies of Valenzuela's pelvis sat on her desk. She was Ingrid Fermin, who is just winding up a three-year run as executive director of the racing board. When I called Fermin about Valenzuela the other day, she said something about being halfway out the door and referred me to PR. Fermin, I'm told, was delighted to sign the order that revoked Valenzuela's license.
Trainers continued to ride him because he was one of the best and, extraordinarily, able to immediately win races after months and months on the bench. The racing board, for reasons of its own, has caved in time and again and re-licensed him. Valenzuela has always surrounded himself with savvy lawyers who could find a loophole in a vat of Jello-O. One time, even though Valenzulela's contract called for unlimited testing, the stewards went months without handing him a bottle. I wrote about this egregious oversight, and Valenzuela's lawyer called to thank me for the column. "We want
them to test Pat," the attorney said. "Letting him go long stretches without being tested is like turning him loose in a candy store."
Before he bailed on Valenzuela, Tom Knust gave him some advice.
"I told him to give up on riding and find something else to do," Knust said. "He's got four kids, and he needs a reliable means of support. He's got a problem with his weight, and it's not like he's 30 or 35 and can take the weight off easily. He needs to flip (regurgitate food), and that takes its toll. He's got a bad knee that's going to continue to bother him. He's got an addictive personality, and outside of racing he might be able to address that."
Valenzuela won the Santa Anita Derby, with Codex, when he was 17. He's won almost 4,000 races, including seven Breeders' Cup stakes, and his mounts have earned $147 million, which ranks him 18th on the career money list. Jockeys like Bill Shoemaker, Craig Perret and Eddie Maple trail him by plenty in purses. In recent years, there has been a misguided suggestion or two that he be placed on the ballot for the Racing Hall of Fame. If they ever throw that against the wall and it sticks, they better make sure none of his agents gets a vote.
Written by Bill Christine
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Another Opening, An Iffy Show
John Sadler, the hottest trainer on the Southern California circuit, uses the words "cautious optimism" in labeling his approach to the upcoming season at Santa Anita. He is not the Lone Ranger. Conditioners from Barry Abrams to Howie Zucker, and everybody alphabetically in between, have the same wait-and-see posture. A coming-apart-at-the-seams Cushion Track will do that to a crowd.
"It's not like you just lay (the new track) down, and it's all ready," said Sadler, whose 21 wins made a farce of the trainers' standings at the recently completed Hollywood Park meet. "It's a little bit different than Wolverhampton." The condescending reference was to the English track that races on the synthetic surface Polytrack, a first cousin of the Cushion Track at Santa Anita.
In preparation for Wednesday's opener at Santa Anita, the 71st in the track's storied history, Sadler sent out 16 of his horses for workouts Sunday. They didn't want for company. Clockers recorded the times of 136 other horses who tried the sand-rubber-and-wax going, and there were 92 workouts over the main track the day before. On the Saturday, trainers were like a mob of shoppers at Macy's the day after Thanksgiving. They hadn't been able to use the Cushion Track for 19 days, or since unseasonably heavy rain created a drainage problem that threatened to drive Ron Charles, Santa Anita's normally unflappable president, to apoplexy. Sometimes, Frank Stronach, who pays the bills, must think that everything he touches turns to spit. This is a man who's given slot machines a bad name at Gulfstream Park, and after doling out $10 million to install Cushion Track in time for the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita this fall, this month it's cost him another $1 million or so, because the maintenance crew had to work double shifts after the rains came. Reportedly, the Cushion Track people are off the hook for the added expense. The old Act of God Clause comes in handy sometimes.
Charles, who's run his own horses for more than 25 years, will need three eyes at this meet: One for the turnstiles, another for the handle and the third for the weather report. Dry weather Christmas week may carry Santa Anita through the first days of the season. "There have already been some faux pas," said Sadler, dispensing with specifics. "We really won't know (how the track tinkering has gone) till it rains again," Sandler said. "This is all a learning experience. There's a learning curve, and the track will have to be tuned up a lot, by adding and subtracting materials."
Rain is as much a part of Santa Anita as the track's mountainous San Gabriel backdrop. There were only three off-tracks last season, as Los Angeles wintered through drought-like conditions, but Santa Anita ran 41 cards in the mud in the two seasons before that.
Rain or shine, Southern California's band of intrepid handicappers is going into this meet walking on eggs. But for an exception or two, the Hollywood Park meet was already a humbling time.
"In this wonderful season of cheer," wrote the handicapping guru James Quinn, "it's surely unpleasant to play the horseplayer's Scrooge, but when Santa Anita opens. . . with a renovated track surface, the prospects for success in handicapping should be less encouraging than ever. The adaptation to a circuit that now progresses from Cushion Track to Cushion Track to Polytrack to dirt to Cushion Track again has proved more troublesome than anticipated, and shippers to Southern California from Golden Gate Fields now will be exiting races on Tapeta."
The California Horse Racing Board's major-track, synthetic-surface ultimatum has left Fairplex Park as the only oval on the circuit with a natural-dirt layout.
So far, Into Mischief, surprise winner of Saturday's CashCall Futurity on windup day at Hollywood Park, is no conundrum; trainer Richard Mandella's colt, with two wins and a second in three starts, has run only on Cushion Track--a maiden win at Santa Anita and a second and a win at Hollywood. Mandella splits his stable between Hollywood and Santa Anita. The day after the Futurity, Mandella said that he would probably wait six weeks before he runs Into Mischief again. That respite would lead them up to the Bob Lewis Stakes (formerly the Santa Catalina) at Santa Anita on Feb. 2. Then Mandella could choose from two more two-turn stakes as preps for the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Should all of this actually unfold, Into Mischief would go to Churchill Downs, for the Kentucky Derby, and be asked to run on God's dirt for the first time. By then, handicappers in the bluegrass might consider calling the Cushion Track-seasoned Jim Quinn for counsel.
No matter what game plan Mandella chooses, it's a cinch that Into Mischief won't do any running on a Wednesday. The only Wednesday racing at Santa Anita this season is opening day. Traditionally a Wednesday-through-Sunday operation (with an occasional holiday Monday), the track has switched to Thursdays through Mondays. Santa Anita's average on-track attendance left the five-digit range in 2002 and hasn't been back since. Mid-week crowds of less than 5,000 are so routine that they are hardly a cause for front-office hand-wringing anymore.
Charles is determined to reverse the trend. "We need to do something to stimulate business on our regular weekdays," he said. "We sought the opinions of a significant cross-section of our customers, and based on feedback from them and others in the industry, we believe that introducing regular Mondays is something worth trying. We believe that our product is going to be very well-received around the country on Mondays. It's worth a try. Continuing with the status quo was unacceptable. We feel that by tweaking the week in this way, we can draw more people on track, while also doing well out of state."
The first two days of the meet--Wednesday and Friday--there was an overflow at the entry box. Ninety-nine horses are entered in the nine races on opening day, and 90 more have shown up on the overnight for Friday's eight-race card. For the horseplayers, two days in heaven is better than nothing.
Written by Bill Christine