Friday, July 23, 2010

'P Val' back in Cali: Good luck with that

If Patrick Valenzuela's career were a cat's life, it would already be roadkill.

But in a closed session on Thursday, the California Horse Racing Board voted to reinstate Valenzuela's riding privileges, under strict guidelines intended to assure he remains clean and sober.

I truly wish everyone luck with that. But don't count me among the optimistic.

It could be argued that few American jockeys of the past 50 years have rivaled Valenzuela's natural talent. Perhaps none can match his knack for getting into trouble.

"P Val" is the son of a race-rider and also had three uncles who were jockeys. So he was born to ride. He collected his first career winner on Nov. 10, 1978, at Sunland Park in New Mexico. In 1980, at age 17, became the youngest jockey ever to win the storied Santa Anita Derby, aboard Codex. He nearly wore the Triple Crown in 1989, but had it snatched away when Easy Goer defeated Sunday Silence in the Belmont Stakes. And, Valenzuela has won seven Breeders' Cup races.

But, so very often, fortune comes coupled with temptation. Valenzuela's well-documented substance abuse problems have contributed to a record that shows eight suspensions during the 1990s, a 22-month ban beginning in the year 2000, another slap on the wrist in 2004, and suspension of various conditional California licenses in 2006 (once) and 2007 (twice). His California license was allegedly revoked for good in 2008 after a drunk-driving arrest.

Since then, Valenzuela has been riding clean for two years in New Mexico and Louisiana, where he picked up his 4,000th winner. Steward Roy Wood says Valenzuela has matured in recent year. Heaven help me, it's about time, at age 47.

But there are two compelling reasons why the CHRB would have been justified in sticking with their 2008 decision and washing their hands of P Val once and for all.

First, racing is a dangerous game. While there are systems in place to stop riders from mounting up and endangering their life, their horse's life, and others when they're under the influence (witness Kent Desormeaux recently at Woodbine), it would have been fair of the CHRB to state that Valenzuela, with his 20-year track record of insobriety, is simply too much of a risk.

Second, presenting a quality product for fans -- and an honest race for bettors -- requires people of trustworthy character. Valenzuela has repeatedly abused the trust of racing officials, horsemen, horseplayers and fans for two decades.

I'm all for giving people second chances. And I wish I could be optimistic. Maybe, at 47 years of age, P Val can put in a couple of decent, clean years in Cali and then announce a dignified retirement.

But Patrick Valenzuela has never had a second chance he didn't eventually squander. And I'm not sure how the CHRB or anyone else can be confident that the umpteenth time's the charm.

1 comment:

  1. They seem to have all the monitoring testing in place for him, and if he's really been clean for 2 yrs., I hope he now has an idea of how precious life and family and horses really are.


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