Valenzuela has boldness saddled

JOHN EISENBERG

May 02, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Pressure? What pressure?

"The other jockeys are the ones under pressure," Pat Valenzuela said. "I'm the only one on Arazi."

But Pat . . .

"We could win running around the outside fence."

. . . what about . . .

"The other horses are running for second place."

. . . the pressure . . .

"No pressure. None. I'm on a horse with an afterburner."

Which is precisely why every drop of the pressure in the 118th Kentucky Derby is on Pat Valenzuela.

Maybe he doesn't feel it, but it is there.

He is on the best horse. A fit, healthy, fast horse. Maybe the best in years. Bad luck is all that can keep the horse from winning today. Bad luck in the form of roadblocks from a traffic jam composed of 18 other horses.

Bad luck that Pat Valenzuela must somehow avoid.

"Sure, the pressure is on Pat," said Allen Jerkens, trainer of 15-1 shot Devil His Due. "There will be a lot to avoid."

Valenzuela just laughs. You have never heard a jockey so cocky.

"We can go around them, go through them," he said. "The other horses don't show me much. I just have to pick the right route and point him. I'm on a push-button horse. The best I've ever ridden."

This from a jockey who won the Derby and Preakness with Sunday Silence.

"Arazi can do more than Sunday Silence," Valenzuela said. "This race is over."

But Pat . . .

"Repeat. Over."

You wonder why trainers and jockeys don't get along. Trainer Francois Boutin has guided Arazi for 30 months, nurturing him through hundreds of misty dawns. But when the defining moment arrives, the dignified Boutin hands off to a punky braggart with a cocaine past who has been on Arazi's back just three times -- twice getting thrown.

A jockey who has had his hands on Arazi maybe 15 minutes.

But the only one who can complete the masterpiece.

The only one who can keep Arazi away from the back of a traffic jam.

XTC Not that he is worried.

"Nineteen is a lot of horses, but Sunday Silence had 15 or something," he said. "I figure they'll all be behind me anyway."

But Pat . . .

"You know the video game Pole Position, where you drive the really fast car?" he said. "That's what I'm going to be doing. Playing Pole Position."

Breaking from the 18th post. Drifting on the outside of the pack. Looking for a chance to drop nearer the rail. Looking for backups to avoid.

"Staying out of trouble," Valenzuela said. "I stay out of trouble, we win."

No one doubts he is up to it. He is a 29-year-old natural, recognized for his fast starts and skill in negotiating traffic.

But what trouble he has seen. He lost the mount on Sunday Silence because of a drug suspension. He missed the 1991 Derby because he was suspended again, this time for refusing to take a urine test. What trouble he has seen.

He has been clean for a year now, though, and riding better than ever. Riding so well that Arazi co-owner Allen Paulson signed him to a one-year contract for a half-million dollars to ride Paulson's American mounts.

He rode Arazi for the first time last November at a workout before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The colt dumped him onto the dirt. He got up, rode the work and came back to the barn.

"Good gracious," he said to Boutin and Paulson. "Good gracious me."

He said they would win the race, and they did -- with a half-mile burst unseen in years.

Then, Valenzuela didn't get back on the colt until Thursday. Again, Arazi dumped him onto the dirt in eagerness. Again, he got back up, rode the work and came back to the barn shaking his head.

"We win," he said.

But Pat . . .

"You know what it's like?" he said. "Like riding in one of Mr. Paulson's jets. What a rush."

You wonder why trainers and jockeys don't get along. Trainers are methodical, understated planners who spend years with a horse. Jockeys are speed freaks who come in at the last minute and share the joy, hanging careers on split-second decisions. But their skills are no less substantial. And a horse needs both.

Arazi needed Boutin's patience to reach this moment. Now he needs Valenzuela's boldness and instincts in front of the 130,000 screamers.

Needs a jockey who thinks he is playing a video game, not holding the Kentucky Derby in his soft hands.

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