Raise your hand if you expected Patrick Valenzuela to ever be third in the jockey standings at a major Southern California meet again after the 47-year-old jockey was issued a lifetime ban by the California Horse Racing Board after being arrested and charged with drunk driving in late 2007.
The lifetime ban lasted less than three years after the current CHRB board members granted Valenzuela a conditional riding license last month and the popular jockey resumed riding in California on July 28 at Del Mar.
Today, after riding the winner of the first race for trainer Neil Drysdale, Valenzuela sits in a tie with Victor Espinoza for third in the Del Mar jockey standings with 16 victories, 17 behind co-leaders Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario. This after Valenzuela recorded his first riding triple Friday since his return.
There is no question Valenzuela’s success stems in part from injuries to Tyler Baze and Joe Talamo that knocked both riders out for the rest of the Del Mar meet. Valenzuela has picked up many of those guys’ mounts since they went down and he’s taking full advantage of the opportunities.
Valenzuela, who had been riding in New Mexico and Louisiana since his exile from California, appears to be a man on a mission. As one press box observer said, he looked old while riding in Louisiana, but suddenly he’s re-energized and eager to take advantage of his situation.
There’s not much middle ground when it comes to P-Val. You either like him or you don’t, and it seems he’s still as popular with the fans as ever. He received a warm welcome in the paddock the day he returned, a show of affection that seems to accompany him whenever he’s gone and then returns.
One industry official, when asked his opinion about P-Val’s reinstatement just days before he was set to return, offered a three-word response: “It’s a travesty.”
I’m all for giving people a second and in some instances a third chance, but P-Val has gone way past that plateau and he’s still to this day unwilling to admit he erred in the past. Unlike Garrett Gomez, who has risen from the depths of despair to the top of his profession and is not afraid to talk about his lows, Valenzuela has never admitted he’s got a problem.
I hope he succeeds, but I didn’t agree with the CHRB’s decision to let him come back because I think it sets a dangerous precedent. Next time the board hands down a harsh punishment on someone in the sport, what does it mean? In P-Val’s case, it meant nothing. A lifetime ban resulted in a three-year suspension.
But there’s never been any question about Valenzuela’s talent. He’s arguably as talented as any jockey who’s ever ridden. Horses just run for the guy, and most importantly he lets them run.
There are still horsemen who won’t use him. Some will relent and eventually begin giving him mounts again, while some will never let him back in their barns. That’s just the way this game is and always will be.
But as one Del Mar official said the second week of the meet, even before P-Val got hot: “He’s focused. It’s like he’s got blinders on.”
Nearly everyone in the industry is waiting for him to mess up again and blow a chance he didn’t really deserve, but if he is as focused as some believe, who knows?
P-Val has been given a golden opportunity. It’s up to him what he does with it.