At 48 years of age, with 4,278 wins under his belt and more than $160 million in purses won, Patrick Valenzuela still has something to prove, and nothing would make his case more than a return win in the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Valenzuela has landed the mount on California invader Comma to the Top, who is getting very little attention in the Derby despite being one of the most accomplished runners in the field. The multiple graded stakes winner and victor in the Cash Call Futurity (gr. I) last year is owned by a partnership headed by Gary Barber.
Valenzuela will be making his ninth Derby appearance, and quite a bit has gone under the bridge since his initial mount in the Run for the Roses as a 17-year-old in 1980 aboard Bold ‘n Rulling.
“When you’re as young as I was when I first rode the Derby, I had goose bumps all over my body going out to the racetrack,” Valenzuela said. “Everybody is revved up and there’s a lot of adrenaline flowing through both you and the horses. As a young kid I couldn’t really grasp it all, but I was excited to be riding in it. My horse ran well (sixth) and since that point I’ve taken it in stride and rode one other Derby before winning it in 1989. That was a feeling that was unbelievable.”
That victory came aboard Sunday Silence at the expense of favored Easy Goer. Valenzuela would ride the son of Halo to Preakness (gr. I) glory before losing his Triple Crown bid to Easy Goer in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
Three years later Arazi, under Valenzuela, disappointed as the odds-on Derby favorite, and soon Valenzuela was disappointing as well, descending into years of substance abuse that earned him multiple suspensions and caused a seemingly limitless career to come crashing down.
Following his most recent reinstatement last summer, however, Valenzuela has proven he hasn’t lost much. He has consistenly ranked in the top 5 in the California jockey colony, and most often top 3 behind Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano. And he’s ridden well for the connections of Comma to the Top, taking the Woodbine Mile for Barber in 2006 aboard Becrux. Trainer Peter Miller and Valenzuela have known each other a long time, and Miller spoke of his belief in redemption as part of the reason he is confident in Valenzuela.
Valenzuela has never ridden Comma to the Top in the afternoon, but has been aboard for the Bwana Charlie gelding’s final pair of works leading up to the Derby.
“His work May 1 went quite well,” said Valenzuela. “We were two lengths behind his workmate and he started dragging me to him on the turn. He worked in 1:00 2/5 doing it all on his own. He feels great. I hope we get a good break from the gate and a good trip and hopefully we’ll be smelling like roses.”
Comma to the Top has a lot of natural speed and more often than not has gone to the lead in his races, including his most recent effort, a game second in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) where he led every step of the way until the end, succumbing by a head to Midnight Interlude. His speed makes Valenzuela, a noted gate rider, the perfect fit for him.
“I’m sure we’ll be forwardly placed because my horse has natural speed,” noted Valenzuela. “We’ll just see how we break and see how the pace is. I don’t think my horse has to be on the lead, but if I inherit it, that would be fine. With 20 horses, you’ve got to get a good break, and that’s where I come into play. The Derby is a jockeys’ race—of course you need the horse under you—but you’ve got to use your best judgment.
“It would be a great feather in my cap to win it again. I’ve come back and been successful in California, and this would really validate my feelings about how I’m riding now.”