It Was a Difference of Styles in the Preakness : Valenzuela's Aggressive Western Riding Overwhelmed Day's Eastern Patience

Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, near the end of his riding career, Don Pierce talked about the difference between riding horses in California and in the East.

"In California, there is a completely different style of riding," said Pierce, who rode more than 180 stakes winners at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park before he turned to training. "Out here (California), the tendency is to ride tight. There's usually not a whole lot of room between horses.

"I used to ride back East, when there wasn't year-round racing in California, and you could tell the difference. Back there, the style is to spread the horses out, with everybody giving everybody else a lot of room. You could drive a truck between horses in many of the Eastern races, compared to the tight quarters we're used to in California."

Some Easterners do not like the aggressive Western style. They see tight riding as rough riding. When his Alydar won the 1978 Travers because of a foul by Affirmed and California jockey Laffit Pincay, trainer John Veitch said: "I expected Affirmed's number to come down. Pincay was using that bareback stuff that they get away with in California, but it doesn't cut it in New York."

Similar tactics by Pat Valenzuela two weeks ago at Pimlico won the Preakness for Sunday Silence and kept the 3-year-old colt eligible for a Triple Crown sweep when the 121st Belmont Stakes is run here Saturday.

Sunday Silence, who had already won the Kentucky Derby, took the Preakness by the bob of a nose over Easy Goer, in what was a classic example of the hell-for-leather style against the patient, more relaxed Eastern manner.

Valenzuela's superb performance in the Preakness was not unlike some other memorable rides by West Coast jockeys in recent Triple Crown races. In the 1983 Belmont, Pincay might have been the country's only rider who would have tried to squeeze Caveat through a small hole on the rail at the top of the stretch.

Caveat bounced off the rail not once but twice, but the move was instrumental in the colt's three-and-one-half-length victory.

In the 1986 Kentucky Derby, it was Bill Shoemaker, with a Derring-Do hardly characteristic of his brilliant career, who sent Ferdinand through a rapidly-closing hole at the top of the stretch, and the rest was easy. Had Rampage been just slightly quicker and been able to reach the same hole, his jockey, Pat Day, said that they would have won the Derby.

If Shoemaker stole a page from Pincay in winning the '86 Derby, Valenzuela did another pretty good imitation in this year's Preakness.

Sunday Silence may be a better horse than Easy Goer, anyway. He was 2 1/2 lengths better in the mud at Churchill Downs, and though the issue was in doubt until the last stride of the Preakness, Sunday Silence nevertheless showed the kind of championship gameness that was the calling card of Affirmed when he edged out Alydar all three times in 1978 to become the last Triple Crown winner.

Regardless of the abilities of the horses, the Preakness was still a jockeys' race, and horseplayers forever will be saying that the outcome turned on Valenzuela outriding Day, the more experienced Eastern jockey.

Valenzuela made two moves to help him win; Day made three mistakes that might have cost him the victory.

Day, who later suggested that he erred, prematurely moved Easy Goer to the front on the far turn. Valenzuela, along with just about everybody else watching the race, was surprised that Easy Goer would go when he did, but he didn't panic.

"I saw Easy Goer go by me so quick," Valenzuela said. "But I knew I had plenty of horse and just waited. He stopped us a little (by forcing Sunday Silence dangerously close to the heels of Houston, who had been on the lead), but I had plenty of horse and then I moved up outside of him (Easy Goer)."

That was move No. 2 by Valenzuela, boxing Easy Goer into the rail, which is the worst place to be in a knock-down-drag-out stretch duel.

Valenzuela told friends he had Easy Goer where he wanted him.

Besides moving too soon, Day also allowed Valenzuela to outmaneuver him for the stretch drive. Before the Kentucky Derby, Charlie Whittingham, Sunday Silence's trainer, was caught defending his choice of Valenzuela as the colt's jockey. Several California jockeys with bigger names were available and Valenzuela had had an erratic spring in riding some of Whittingham's other stakes horses.

But Wittingham kept saying Valenzuela was an excellent position rider. In the Preakness, that proved to be true.

Day's last mistake was made in the final yards when he jerked Easy Goer's head in the direction of Sunday Silence. Before Day's explanation, it appeared that Easy Goer might have even been trying to bite Sunday Silence.

Day said that he cocked Easy Goer's head at a 45-degree angle because he wanted his mount to see Sunday Silence just outside him. But this was wasted motion in a race that was decided by inches. Easy Goer and Sunday Silence were so close that they were brushing. Even without having his head cocked, Easy Goer would have had to be blind not to notice his rival.

For a while, though, it still looked as if the Preakness might be a repeat of one of Day's most exceptional rides--in the first Breeders' Cup Classic, at Hollywood Park in 1984. That afternoon, Day was trapped on the rail by two horses, one of them the undisciplined, Lugging-In Gate Dancer on the far outside. But Day persevered, and got Wild Again home in a three-way photo finish.

Saturday's Belmont could be another jockeys' race, with the pressure on Day. Sunday Silence figures to be ahead of Easy Goer in the early going, and Day can't let Valenzuela's colt get too far ahead. Day also must decide when to move on Sunday Silence, and hope that his decision isn't as ill-timed as it was at Pimlico.

Both horses are bred to run 1 1/2 miles, so the jockeys, as they were in the Preakness, are likely to be the tell-tale ingredient.

"I really don't see any way Easy Goer can beat us in the Belmont," Valenzuela said.

There is a way, of course, because Easy Goer is a good horse behind another good horse in a light year for 3-year-olds, and even a colt as talented as Sunday Silence is not invincible. But because of what has happened in this brief, two-race rivalry, the younger rider from the West is suddenly looming larger than the more heralded jockey from the East.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°