“I can't even explain the feeling of winning,” exalted a focused, yet jubilant, Patrick Valenzuela. “It's hard to explain to someone who doesn't ride races, but a win for $5,000 or $5 million – it doesn't matter – the feeling when you pass that wire first is like euphoria!”
Displaying a balance of youthful enthusiasm and the natural humility that results from a long career filled with well-publicized highs and lows, 'P-Val' has entered the riding colony at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots quietly, but quickly made his mark. After hitting the board five times from his first six mounts, including two Saturday scores – one in a dirt sprint and another in a grass route – New Orleans racing fans were given a crash refresher course on why the 53-year-old native of Montrose, Colorado has won a Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Queen's Plate, seven Breeders' Cups, 65 Grade I events, maintained an impressive 15.3% strike rate over a 28,405-mount (4,348-win) career and piloted such greats as Sunday Silence, Arazi, Bertrando, Best Pal, Very Subtle and Lava Man to victory.
“Getting back to winning again was such a treat,” Valenzuela beamed. “It's been a long and hard road and I'm a little older, but am also more experienced. Riding for good trainers like Hugh (Robertson) and Morris (Nicks) helps, of course. They're great trainers. After the second win I had to put a (fist-) pump out there – it felt so good! The people here at Fair Grounds and New Orleans have always embraced me and I love it. The southern hospitality is out of this world. I've never been in a place with people so kind.
“When I got here all the calls in the first book were basically gone,” he continued. “We were hustling to get mounts, but things are starting to change now and it looks like we've gotten over the hump and they're looking up. I look forward to hopefully riding for some of the other barns like Tom Amoss, Al Stall (Jr.) and Steve Asmussen and just doing the best I can out there for everyone who supports me.”
Valenzuela's considerable skills were especially on display during his second victory in Saturday's fourth race. Purposely breaking slowly on his mount, Major Ashworth, to calm her down, he drafted behind horses, saved ground on both turns and did not tip out until the last possible moment in order to give the Morris Nicks trainee the optimal opportunity to display her acceleration. The 5-1 daughter of Colonel John quickly put away her rivals and dashed away to a 6½-length victory like a 1-5 shot.
“I really feel that my riding is on key right now,” he said. “I'm getting on a lot of horses and am focused on riding a lot of races. I want to win races, of course, but I am taking it one race at a time and just do the best that I can on every single horse. Hopefully we come up with some winning results.”
Valenzuela took the time to elaborate on what his keys to victory over the years have been. Known as one of the best gate riders ever to sit in a saddle, he also is acknowledged by many as one of the sharpest minds in regards to pace – especially in grass races – which has resulted in wins like his rail-skimming 1992 Breeders' Cup Turf win on Fraise and deep-closing 1991 Breeders' Cup Mile victory on Opening Verse.
“A jockey needs to have a strong sense of pace as one of his assets,” he explained. “You also obviously have to have a good break and put yourself where you want in the race, especially if you have a horse with speed. Knowing horses all my life, I would say it just helps to know all the little secrets and that's where experience comes into play. With the experience and success that I've had and learned from, I can tell you that with time, younger riders will come realize how important being an experienced rider is.
“You have to study the form the night before,” he continued. “Of course, it would be nice to know the horse in the morning, if you can, but you can't always do that for every horse. You have to have confidence – in yourself and in the horse. I try to go out and pet every horse I ride and make a connection – that gives the horse confidence that a friend is getting on top of them. When I get on them, I pet them some more and try to give them some confidence in themselves and relax them. When it comes down to it, the horses are the ones performing – we're just enhancing that performance and being the pilots. It takes a good one to get them home, of course, but they're doing most of the work. I try to make the horse happy, stay out of their way and let them run their race – and that works out quite a bit.”
When Valenzuela received a leg up last week at Delta Downs, he was returning from a nearly two year absence from the saddle. Quick to recognize that the journey back to doing what he believes he was born to do has been as tempestuous as it has been long, the 1982 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner displays the drive and physical prowess of someone half his age.
“My strength is great right now and I feel really fit and focused,” he said. “I feel better than I've ever felt and I know I'm maybe 80 percent – so these guys better watch out when I put that 20 percent back in.
“The colony is big here,” he concluded. “There are a lot of talented jockeys and I love competing against these riders and seeing them win, as well. There's enough pie to go around for everybody – I just hope my piece is a little bit bigger in the end.”
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