Tired of the Pat Valenzuela saga? Who isn’t? But don’t look for racing’s longest-running sideshow to end any time soon.
Valenzuela, who has admitted a past dependence on cocaine, has not ridden since Nov. 2. He has been serving an open-ended suspension since Nov. 15, pending a complete physical and psychological evaluation. He says he is clean, sober and fit to ride right. He has reputable owners and trainers with horses ready and waiting.
At last, the reports from the various examining physicians are in, and a hearing has been scheduled Friday morning for Valenzuela and his attorney before Hollywood Park stewards Pete Pedersen, Tom Ward and Dave Samuel.
Undoubtedly, they will have before them a robust, clear-eyed Valenzuela, full of assurances he is recovered from a state of depression that he says forced him to cancel his mounts on the important California Cup program at Santa Anita on Nov. 3.
They also will have evaluations from Dr. Robert Kerlan, Hollywood Park’s medical adviser, and Dr. Albert Puskas and Dr. Joe Takamine, both internists, regarding Valenzuela’s physical and mental condition.
Based on conversations with those close to the case, it is a virtual certainty that Valenzuela will receive some kind of suspension. Its length could be anywhere from two weeks--the recommendation of Takamine--to six months. Its severity will determine just how far Valenzuela is willing to go to challenge any ruling.
The rules of racing allow him to appeal a stewards’ decision to the California Horse Racing Board and request a stay of suspension while the appeal is pending. But Valenzuela’s attorneys are prepared to skip the first two options and go right to the courts to get their client back in action.
“If there is a suspension of more than two weeks, you can be assured we will be in court immediately,” attorney Nick Micelli said. “There will be a complaint for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and damages. Obviously, I’ve already got the papers drawn up.”
Valenzuela, reached at his Arcadia home, declined to speculate on what action the stewards might take.
“I feel they should let me ride,” he said. “It’s all been very frustrating. I’ve been to every doctor they told me to see. If I did anything wrong, I don’t know what it was.”
Valenzuela, 28, attempted to clear up two reports that received widespread circulation immediately after his Nov. 3 absence.
The first, that he needed to take three months off to “straighten out” his life, was included in a signed statement by Dr. Neil Fisher, the examining physician for Santa Anita jockeys, made on the afternoon of Nov. 3. Not surprisingly, eyebrows were raised when Valenzuela attempted to be reinstated in time for the mount on Best Pal in the $1-million Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 9.
“I never said that,” Valenzuela maintained when asked about the three-month reference.
Valenzuela also denied that he refused a stewards’ request on Nov. 3 to be tested for drugs. Such a request can be made of a rider for probable cause or on a random basis as part of an ongoing monitoring program.
“We did not request it of him ourselves,” Ward said. “But we did ask Dr. Fisher to tell Patrick to submit to a test. As far as we are concerned, that is an official request.”
According to Fisher’s statement, Valenzuela refused to submit a test specimen. Micelli said Valenzuela was willing to be tested that weekend.
“There was a miscommunication between the doctor and Patrick in regard to whether they were going to send somebody over to his house,” Micelli said. “He was not feeling well enough to leave his house.”
Micelli said Valenzuela was tested a number of times before and after Nov. 3.
“He was tested on Oct. 27 in New York when he was there to ride in a Breeders’ Cup race,” Micelli said. “He was tested on Nov. 7, the 8th, the 17th and the 18th. And out of abundant caution, we had him go to (Arcadia) Methodist Hospital yesterday to be tested again.”
The stewards are acting according to California horse racing rule No. 1498, which requires a jockey to pass a physical examination before being allowed to ride.
However, in their Nov. 15 ruling, the stewards demanded a psychological evaluation of Valenzuela, as well. Were they overstepping their bounds?
“Not at all,” deputy attorney general Cathy Christian said. “Based on a series of incidents, the stewards had reason to believe he might be a danger to himself or other jockeys. If that is an issue, I think the intent of the rule is to give them the authority to determine psychological fitness as well.”
No one envies the stewards in this case. They must deal with criticism that they have coddled Valenzuela in the past. They have had pressure from other jockeys to come down hard on him this time. They must weigh differing evaluations from respected physicians. Then they must be willing to defend their decision in court.
And to get it right, all they have to do is look into Valenzuela’s eyes and read his mind.
Horse Racing Notes
Two top riders changed agents this week: Laffit Pincay, who fired Tony Matos last March and hired Jerry Ingordo, split with Ingordo and hired Rene San Miguel. Jose Santos, who is slowly building a local clientele, hired the respected Jeff Franklin when Frank Sanabria decided to return home to New York. . . . Fans of the brainy handicapper, James Quinn, should note that his sixth book, “Recreational Handicapping,” has just been published by William Morrow & Co. . . . John Mabee’s Fantastic Look heads the field for the Silver Belles Handicap Saturday at Hollywood Park.