Valenzuela Is Left Wondering About the Future : Jockey Is Victorious in the Strub, but Will Solis Regain the Ride on Snow Chief?

Times Staff Writer

This was 10 minutes after he had finished fourth with Sword Prince in the ninth race at Santa Anita Sunday and 40 minutes after he had won the eighth, the $516,750 Charles H. Strub Stakes, with Snow Chief, outlasting Ferdinand in a match race through the stretch.

Now Patrick Valenzuela stood near his jockeys' room dressing cubicle, thinking both of the bottom line and the finish line.

He had crossed the latter with five weekend winners, including Fran's Valentine in Saturday's Santa Maria Handicap.

A smile as big as his 10% cut from the Strub and Santa Maria lit his face.

"Oh man, those two races alone come up to about forty grand," he said. "Then I won a $60,000 stakes Wednesday. Not a bad week, huh?

"Thank God. It doesn't last forever."

A tough business has taught the 24-year-old Valenzuela a lot about pace, and even more about philosophy and pragmatism.

Even in the wake of his impressive ride on Snow Chief, critically controlling the pace while saving enough for the final furlongs, Valenzuela was quickly reminded of the tenuous nature of forever.

In this case, it may be over before March 8, when Snow Chief starts again in the Santa Anita Handicap.

The ride in that one may go to Alex Solis, who was up when Snow Chief registered nine of his previous 11 wins, six last year en route to the Eclipse Award as 3-year-old colt of the year.

Solis is back riding now after recovering from a broken leg and thumb suffered in a Dec. 14 spill at Hollywood Park.

Dealing from a sense of loyalty, trainer Mel Stute said Sunday, "If it's up to me, we'll put Alex back on. I have to go through the owners, but I believe Pat would understand."

Stute bases his belief on the fact that he made a similar move on Valenzuela's behalf last year after Valenzuela, who had been the regular rider on Brave Raj, opted to ride Al Mamoon in the Aug. 31 Arlington Million, finishing eighth on the same day that Corey Black won the Del Mar Debutante with Brave Raj. Stute promptly put Valenzuela back on, and Brave Raj ultimately won an Eclipse Award as 2-year-old filly of the year.

Will it be Solis or Valenzuela on Snow Chief in the Big 'Cap?

"I'm not sure," co-owner Carl Grinstead said Sunday. "There's been pressure to go back to Solis. I want to see how he rides (on his return from the injuries) before we decide."

Is Stute correct? Would Valenzuela understand?

"It's happened so many times that all you can do is look ahead," the jockey said, thinking back to mounts he has been taken off and put back on (or is it vice versa?). "Things happen for a reason. You can't look back."

If he did, he might think about 1980, when he won the Santa Anita Derby with Codex only to see Angel Cordero get the call in the Preakness. Or 1983, when he won the Strub with Swing Till Dawn only to see Craig Perret get the call in ensuing Eastern races.

The disappointments linger, but it has gone the other way, too.

Valenzuela went back on Fran's Valentine in the Santa Maria, for example, because Bill Shoemaker is recuperating from knee surgery.

"Yes, I understand," Valenzuela said of the possibility that Solis will get Snow Chief in the Big 'Cap. "But I would understand it more if we had lost this race. I won this race and it's hard to give him back, though I understand why Alex would want him back. Who wouldn't want to ride a super horse like this?"

Snow Chief hadn't looked quite so super in finishing second in the Malibu and third in the San Fernando, the Strub stepping stones.

Those were Valenzuela's first rides, and while Stute said he had failed to prepare Snow Chief properly, there was a feeling Sunday that another failure would have definitely represented a last assignment for Valenzuela.

"I don't know," the jockey said. "I've been doing so well for Mr. Grinstead and (co-owner Ben) Rochelle that I think I would have gotten another chance. I hope I still will. I really want to stay. I've gotten to know him now the way a jockey should. I'm really comfortable, and it can only get better because the horse is now back to being himself. He ran his eyeballs out today and was relaxed all the way, even though Broad Bush and Ferdinand were laying all over him.

"I've been confident ever since he woke up and worked that seven furlongs in 1:23 and change the other day."

That was Monday. On Sunday, Snow Chief went wire to wire, surviving a bumping incident with Ferdinand in the final strides.

Said Stute: "Coming off the track, Pat said, 'I want to claim foul.' I said, 'Maybe you ought to wait. Maybe we won anyway.' I mean, Pat's like that. He's had some trouble with suspensions and tends to feel that everyone is picking on him."

The photo confirmed a nose victory. There was no inquiry, though Valenzuela insisted he would have called one had Snow Chief finished second.

"I don't know what happened, but in the last two or three jumps my horse's hind end swung out from under him," Valenzuela said.

"We went out about two or three feet, but Ferdinand came in five or six. We lost momentum and I'm really surprised he still won. We'd have won by a head or neck otherwise."

Snow Chief may have won because familiarity doesn't always breed contempt. He may have won because rider and horse were more like one.

Valenzuela alluded to that when he said of the colt's ability to set his own pace:

"He might just be a free-running horse. I keep learning more about him. In fact, I think I've got him down now."

Will that keep him in the saddle? Either way, Valenzuela figures to understand.

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