California horseplayers scanning a Racing Form encounter a veritable Who's Who of jockeydom: national riding champions Delahoussaye E, Hawley S, McCarron C J, McHargue D G, Pincay L Jr, and Shoemaker W. Nevertheless, more often than not, the name that captures their eye is Valenzuela P A, who until late last month was " Patrick Valenzuela in the Santa Anita program. The asterisk, or "bug," identified Pat Valenzuela, 17, as an apprentice with a five-pound weight allowance whenever he rode. And when he rode he gave his elders fits, becoming, among other things, the first apprentice to win more than $1 million at Santa Anita. But what, people wondered, would happen when he lost his bug.
What happened was that on his first day without the allowance Valenzuela P A rode three winners in a row. Three days later he won the first stakes race of his career, on Great Lady M in the $46,100 Las Cienegas. Soon after that he scored a stunning upset with a 25-to-1 shot, Codex, in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby. That was a nice little race worth $184,700, including a winner's share of $117,200.
"I knew right along that I wouldn't have too much trouble adapting to riding without the bug," says Valenzuela. "Many trainers had been using me in stakes races anyway, and I didn't have the five pounds then. But the win on Codex should help me a great deal because it'll bring more attention to me."
How much attention does the kid want? In the jockeys' rooms the other riders had already been giving him a rough time because he was taking huge sums out of their pockets. As Valenzuela watched videotapes of his races, another jockey might say, "Bug, you moved too quickly on that horse," or, "You had trouble switching your stick, Bug." But Valenzuela rarely answered back, taking the guff with good grace, responding most often with a wan smile.
If the kidding threatened to get out of hand, Valenzuela I, for Ismael, more commonly known as Milo, stepped in. Milo, 46, but still a rider on the California tracks, is Pat's uncle and the most famous of the five Valenzuelas who have ridden in the U.S. Milo won the Kentucky Derby twice, with Tim Tam and Forward Pass, and he rode the great Kelso better than anyone else.
Milo's eyes would twinkle with amusement as he watched Shoemaker W, Pincay L and others needle his nephew. "He took it very well," Milo says. "I know this boy can ride, and I'm not saying that just because I'm his uncle. Hell, he can horseback. There are times when I get on his case pretty hard. There are also times when he gets pretty stubborn when I criticize him, but he does many things right."
Breaking into the Top 10 in the jockey standings at Santa Anita is a little like elbowing into the starting lineup of the 1927 New York Yankees. Since the track's current meeting opened on Dec. 26, however, Pat Valenzuela has ridden so well that he is in third place behind Pincay and McCarron with 81 winners. As an apprentice he averaged better than a winner a day, surpassing the victory totals of any bug boy in Santa Anita's history, including Walter Blum, Bill Boland and Bill Shoemaker. As of last Saturday, his mounts had earned $1,305,080 in 1980, placing him in the Top 10 in the national earnings standings.
Valenzuela's long suit as a rider is his tremendous ability to break a horse from the starting gate quickly. Getting a quick start is more rewarding at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar than on other racing circuits because the emphasis on speed in California is almost excessive. "People keep talking about how quick Pat is from the gate," says Trainer John Fulton, "but he can also ride from behind. I know because he has done it to me a few times."
Pat Valenzuela's father, Albino, rode in the 1950s, as did his other uncles. Angel Jr., Mario and Santiago. Yet another uncle, Martin, is a trainer. Pat lives with Milo near the Santa Anita track. In the evening Milo critiques videotapes of his nephew's races and goes over the past performances of the horses Pat will ride the following day.
"It was Milo who encouraged me to try Santa Anita the winter before last," Pat says. "I had already ridden winners in New Mexico, and I wanted to see what I could do in the big time. Milo had looked at the apprentices riding at Santa Anita and thought I might have a chance to get my feet on the ground, but he told me it wouldn't be easy. I came to California and started to gallop horses in the morning. I got some mounts, but at first I didn't have much luck."