With Pat Valenzuela, the suspensions for substance abuse issues and other off-the-track problems are now so many that most people have lost count. He's had eight, nine, maybe more, second chances and has resurfaced again, this time at age 53. He plans to ride the current meet at The Fair Grounds. Valenzuela is there because it appears California, his home base for much of his career, is not about to let him back any time soon.
Some people have P. Val fatigue. He's on to the umpteenth chapter and the story never seems to change. That's understandable. Some people have P. Val disgust. They think it's wrong that he keeps getting re-licensed after so many transgressions and should be banned forever. That, I don't get.
While a jockey's license is a privilege, someone should be judged for what they do on the track and not off.
This sport has been way too forgiving to jockeys and trainers who break rules and cheat the public. Any jockey caught carrying a battery should never be allowed to ride again as they have committed what should be an unpardonable sin, deliberately trying to rig the outcome of as race and cheat or rob the betting customer. The same goes for anyone who holds a horse in an attempt to rig a race. One strike and you are out. Yet there are a dozens of jockeys out there right now guilty of one of those offenses that have been allowed back.
The same goes for trainers. Too many who have been caught using illegal drugs often get nothing more than minor penalties, run their barns via cell phone while the horses are put in and assistant's name, and then return after their forced vacations.
No one should condone what Valenzuela has done with his personal life, which has destroyed much of what could have been one of the greatest careers in the history of the sport. You can blame him for being weak. You can blame his obvious demons. But when it comes to his being a jockey it doesn't matter because the only victim of Pat Valenzuela's transgressions has been Pat Valenzuela.
He has never been accused of doing anything untoward once he hops aboard a horse. In fact, he is recognized as one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the sport. Few jockeys have ever been more cognizant of the need to get everything they can out of a horse because that's what the bettors deserve. Neither has he ever been accused of riding while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which would jeopardize the safety of other riders.
He is a not an employee of any racetrack, the state of California or Louisiana. Rather, he is a private contractor seeking employment from trainers and owners. Because there is no evidence that he has ever ridden while intoxicated, if an owner/trainer wants to hire him, why is that not OK? Nobody tries to stop anyone from hiring a plumber who has had substance abuse problems.
Valenzuela has had more lives than a cat. Several times, it has looked like he's too old and/or been away too long to wage a successful comeback. Yet, somehow, the pattern has always been that his talent overcomes the many challenges and he surges back toward the top of the standings.
This time, the odds really do seem to be something he can't buck. Before re-appearing at Delta Downs for the Delta Jackpot last Saturday he had not ridden for 22 months, and his age is an issue. He rode just one horse that day at Delta and didn't get his next mount until Thursday at the Fair Grounds. He again had just one ride on the card at that was a horse who was 30-1 in the morning line.
Then again, you can never count this guy out.
You should also root for him to stay sober, just because you wouldn't wish the problems he has had on anyone. He may be troubled, but that's different from being a bad guy, which he's not. But whether he makes it or not, Valenzuela has every right to be out there riding, and that includes in California.
Closers: While American Pharoah will obviously be Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion, what about his connections? For the trainer, jockey and owner, to be associated with a Triple Crown winner is no guarantee of an Eclipse Award.
The awards have only been around since 1971, so there's no history relating to all Triple Crown winners prior to Secretariat.
Since then, none of three Triple Crown winning jockeys (Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruguet, Steve Cauthen) won an Eclipse during their Triple Crown year. Ironically, Cauthen beat out Cruguet for the Eclipse during 1977, the year of Seattle Slew's Triple Crown. American Pharoah's rider Victor Espinoza will likely get a lot of votes, but Javier Castellano has been so dominant he's got to be the favorite here.
Lucien Laurin (Secretariat) and Billy Turner (Seattle Slew) did not win the Eclipse but Laz Barrera (Affirmed) did. Bob Baffert is far from a one-feat wonder and will almost certainly be named the Eclipse Award winning trainer.
The owners of Secretariat and Affirmed won an Eclipse. The owners of Seattle Slew did not in a year when Slew's trainer, owner and jockey all got shut out. Ahmed Zayat is a lock to win the leading owner Eclipse as not only did he campaign American Pharoah but he likely won over a lot of voters with the way he managed the horse and always understood his obligation to showcase him to the fans. Plus, his stable leads the nation in earnings.