A horse who has been away from the winner's circle everyplace else and a jockey who had been away from California combined to win the $150,000 Pomona Handicap Sunday as the Los Angeles County Fair ended its 18-day run at Fairplex Park.
He's a Saros, who won the stake last year and then went on a 13-race losing streak at tracks throughout California, stayed close to the leaders and closed ground willingly under Pat Valenzuela down Fairplex's short, 757-foot stretch for a one-length win over favored Conquering Hero.
The victory marked a double celebration for Valenzuela, who, in the race before the Pomona, won the $34,360 Amanda S. Stakes by four lengths with T.V. of Crystal.
Until Saturday, when he failed to win with two mounts at Fairplex, the 25-year-old Valenzuela, once one of the leading jockeys in the country, hadn't ridden in California since March, having run afoul of the stewards at Santa Anita because of repeatedly not being available to ride.
Valenzuela attempted to ride in New Mexico, but tested positive for cocaine. He then moved to Chicago, where he was the leading rider before being sidelined because of a broken leg suffered in a starting-gate accident.
Valenzuela will make another attempt to reconstruct his troubled career when the Oak Tree season opens Wednesday at Santa Anita.
"I wasn't nervous about riding here the last two days," Valenzuela said minutes after He's a Saros' victory. "I've always wanted to come back and ride in California."
Other than that, though, Valenzuela was reluctant to discuss details of his drug rehabilitation. The Fairplex stewards reportedly tested him twice during the past week for drug use. Another condition attached to his return is working with the Winners Foundation, a group that addresses drug and alcohol programs in racing.
After winning his first stake Sunday, Valenzuela said: "This is better than winning the Kentucky Derby. I just wish Shoe (Bill Shoemaker) had been here to present the trophy."
Shoemaker was at Canterbury Downs Sunday, losing to Julie Krone in a match race.
After winning the Pomona last year, He's a Saros didn't win again until he repeated in another Fairplex race, the Phil D. Shepherd Stakes, on Sept. 17.
"Pat rode the hair off of this horse today," Dominic Manzi said Sunday. "I'm real happy for him."
Joe Manzi, Dominic's father, trains He's a Saros, but his son saddled the 5-year-old gelding for owner Earl Scheib Sunday.
Conquering Hero took a brief lead at the head of the stretch, but Valenzuela, who had brought He's a Saros out from the rail on the second run down the backstretch, passed him on the outside. Conquering Hero finished a neck ahead of Stylish Winner, who was 1 lengths better than the fourth-place finisher, Shafy. The rest of the order of finish was Narghile, Leasee, Khalil and Exotic Eagle, with Northern Provider and Redouble II having been scratched.
The second choice in the betting among a crowd of 17,720, He's a Saros paid $8.20 to win and earned $82,500 for running 1 1/8 miles in a good time of 1:49 1/5. He's a Saros has 11 wins in 50 starts and has earned almost $460,000.
"This horse runs well all the time, not just here," Valenzuela said. "Give Joe Manzi credit for having him ready. We were in a good position at all times. We just followed Conquering Hero from the outside before we made our move."
Horse Racing Notes
Alex Solis was aboard He's a Saros when he won the Pomona Handicap a year ago. . . . Corey Black rode the winners of three straight races on Sunday's card to beat out Martin Pedroza, 27-24, and win his third straight riding title. . . . Emperdori, who was third in the Pomona Handicap last year, won the last race of the meeting Sunday, giving Craig Lewis a 10-9 lead over Ron Ellis in the final trainers' standings. Lewis also finished on top last year. . . . On track, the fair averaged $2.3 million in betting a day, which was a drop of almost 13% from last year, but counting bets at seven off-track centers, this year's overall handle was up 12%. On-track attendance averaged 12,080, which was almost 13% less than last year. A Fairplex official said that overall attendance for the fair itself was about the same as last year.