Did Pat Valenzuela's mother soften up Allen Paulson with a Mexican dinner so that he would sign her son to a juicy riding contract for 1992?
"I sure like good home-cooked Mexican food," Paulson said.
Shortly after that meal a few weeks ago, Paulson and Valenzuela made a deal that obligates the 29-year-old jockey to the aerospace executive's horses for the coming year. Years ago, in the riding heyday of Eddie Arcaro, Bill Shoemaker, Johnny Longden and Ted Atkinson, stables such as Calumet and Greentree would sign jockeys to exclusive contracts.
When Steve Cauthen left the United States in 1979 to ride for Robert Sangster in England, he was signed for an annual retainer, exclusive of purse money, for a reported $400,000. Many jockeys are contract riders for top stables in Europe now. But in the U.S., Valenzuela may be one of a kind.
Anyone standing next to Paulson at last month's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs would have known that the Malibu plutocrat was smitten with Valenzuela. In the fifth race of the day, Valenzuela brought Paulson's Opening Verse from behind for a victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
About half an hour later, the assistant starters were loading the 14 horses into the gate for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Valenzuela was aboard Arazi, the 2-1 favorite and, according to Paulson, the guaranteed winner.
In the box-seat area, surrounded by family and friends, Paulson said: "Pat does such a great job. He won a race for me yesterday, too, you know. He's a natural."
A couple of minutes later, Paulson and his entourage were en route to the winner's circle again, to meet Arazi and Valenzuela.
At Hollywood Park later in the month, Valenzuela and his agent, Jeff Franklin, were discussing business. Paulson had run a horse that day, and Laffit Pincay had ridden him.
"Jeff told me that I should have been on that horse, considering the special relationship me and Mr. Paulson had," Valenzuela said. "That's when we first started talking about a retainer."
Shortly thereafter, Valenzuela approached Paulson with the idea of having a contract, in a conversation that might have been slightly telepathic.
"I had been thinking about the same thing," Paulson said later.
Paulson usually has about 125 horses in training at the same time. This year, his horses have earned about $2 million in stakes purses, which ranks him seventh nationally.
"I think Pat is the sharpest jockey around," Paulson said. "He's young and he's got such great spirit. That's the same spirit that has given Pat some problems (a reference to the jockey's drug difficulties) in the past, but he likes to ride, he's aggressive, and I'm glad we've got him on our horses. Part of this is that he'll work all of our horses, too, and I think that's going to be a big advantage."
Arazi's 3-year-old season, leading up to the Kentucky Derby, is scheduled to begin in France, where he ran last year and where his trainer, Francois Boutin, is based. There were reports at the Breeders' Cup that Steve Cauthen might ride Arazi in Europe and Valenzuela would take over back here, but that never made a lot of sense, switching jockeys on the way to the Triple Crown.
Neither Paulson nor Valenzuela would discuss the retainer fee that the jockey will receive, but Paulson said that Valenzuela will be paid a monthly salary that results in an annual six-figure income.
"There's a guarantee, and then there are incentive clauses, depending on how well we do," Paulson said. "There's the potential for his guarantee to grow to seven figures if we have that big a year."
Paulson's trainers, led by Dick Lundy, who manages the stable's American operations, have first call on Valenzuela, who can ride for other outfits as long as there isn't a conflict.
Despite missing the 1990-91 Santa Anita season because of a drug-related suspension, Valenzuela's horses have earned more than $8 million this year, ranking him 10th on the Daily Racing Form's recent national money list. Besides the two Breeders' Cup victories for Paulson, he won a third $1-million race, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, with Best Pal.
"Nothing's going to change," Valenzuela said. "I've talked to other trainers, and they've been very supportive. I'm going to have a great 1992."
Will other jockeys try to sign on with stables, as Valenzuela has? Not likely, says Franklin. "Take a look around," the agent said. "There aren't that many of the big stables left. There might be a handful in the entire country. The opportunities to do that just aren't there."
Horse Racing Notes
What the draw for Sunday's La Brea Stakes proves is that there's a surplus of good 3-year-old fillies on the grounds. For the first time since 1975, the La Brea will be run in two divisions, each worth $75,000. The first half includes Exchange, who has won three straight, and Sha Tha, who makes her debut on dirt after winning stakes in France and Maryland. Running against them are Cuddles, D'or Ruckus, Fappies Cozy Miss, Garden Gal, Good Potential, Improper Princess, Rejoice and Spirited Susan.
In the second division, Nice Assay, who has won three times at Santa Anita this year, drew the outside post position in a 10-horse field. The rest of the entrants are Cara Carissima, Damewood, Ifyoucouldseemenow, Lady Isis, Middlefork Rapids, Remarkably Easy, Slip With Me, Suziqcute and Teresa Mc. . . . Big Al's Express, still a maiden, runs in a race on Sunday's card. Big Al's Express shook up Churchill Downs officials this year when he was vanned in from Northern California to run in the Kentucky Derby. After running up the track in the Derby Trial, he was returned to California.