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by John Piesen

One of the biggest racing stories of 2010 (perhaps the biggest) is Patrick Valenzuela, who, at the ripe old age of 47, is embarking on a comeback for the ages in southern California, finishing third in the Del Mar jockey standings to Rosario and Bejarano with 28 winners, and a .15 per cent batting average.

And on Wednesday, P Val rides the favored J P’s Gusto in the $250,000 Del Mar Futurity, major steppingstone to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. J P, who, contrary to some reports, is not named for this writer, will be a short price on the basis of three straight stakes wins, Two of them stakes.

The horse likes the front end…and so does his rider.

Even though P Val has spent most of his career out west, while I’m an East Coast guy, our paths have crossed many times, notably in ’89 when P Val was beating New York’s Easy Goer on Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness -- and I seemed to be the lone Sunday Silence fan east of the Mississippi River.

But that was nine years after our first meeting.

That was 1980, and I was covering my first Derby for the New York Post, while Valenzuela, at age 17, was riding his first Derby – on a bomber named Bold ‘n Rulling.

On Thursday morning, I called in my Derby picks to the Post: 1) Bold ‘n Rulling 2) Genuine Risk 3) Rumbo.

I recall my editor, Greg Gallo, telling me in no uncertain terms that I was a stark raving nut job, and that I could save the Post some cash by catching the next plane home.

Didn’t happen, and Bold ‘n Rulling went to the post at 68-1, the 12th choice in a field of 13. But back at New York City OTB (there were separate pools in those days) the horse was 23-1…an Indication that folks back home were reading the Post racing section.

Bold ‘n Rulling made the lead from the inside leaving the half-mile pole, and P Val appeared to have a ton of horse under him. But the Boldster weakened in the stretch to finish fifth, beaten six lengths by Genuine Risk, and pulled up lame, never to run again.

The J Team (Jenny, Jacinto, and Jolley) could wait. We had no Sunday paper in those days Thus no deadline. So I rushed down to the jocks’ room…where I introduced myself to a dejected Patrick Valenzuela.

He was in tears.

“Man,” he told me, “I had the race won. I hadn’t even asked him when he made the lead…and then he broke down. I had to pull him up in the stretch. On four legs, he wins the Derby.”

Hard to believe that this is actually the 30th anniversary of that historic Derby, historic thanks to the fact that Genuine Risk was only the second filly to win it.

And what would be the odds that Patrick Valenzuela would be the only one of the dozen riders in that 1980 Derby still riding? And winning? And with his addictive personality to boot.

We wish P Val luck in his comeback…and with JP Gusto who (you never know) could be a lot less than 68-1 in the 2011 Derby.

Meantime, New York racing is taking off four days before Elmont Park kicks off on Saturday.

It wasn’t that long ago that there was merely one dark day (Tuesday) between the close of Saratoga on Monday, and the opening of Belmont on Wednesday.

The four-day break gives NYRA management more time to brag about the Saratoga meet, which saw attendance and handle drop only seven per cent from ’09. In this day and age, when the national racing handle is off 20 per cent in the last two years, I guess NYRA is allowed to brag some.

But where’s the credibility when the Saratoga attendance figures are spiked by three giveaway days, capped by the final Sunday, when free T-shirts attracted an announced crowd of 58,872.

And, speaking of inflated figures, by uncoupling entries, NYRA extracted an additional $14.4 million from the pockets of its customers. Of course, on Sunday, when Todd Pletcher ran four of the eight fillies in the Spinaway, he won with the longest price – R. Heat Lightning at $10.40.

Oh, yes…second to the Toddster in the Spinaway was Alienation (5-1), yet another second for the followers of the John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283).

The Hot Line finished strong at the Spa with weekend stakes-winners Lethal Combination ($8.60 in the Saranac) and Keertana, last to first at $12.80 in the Glens Falls, and will back on Saturday ready to rock and roll at Belmont.

Speaking of Belmont, it will be interesting to see how those many horses who couldn’t make up any ground the last month on the speed-biased Spa grass courses (save Keertana), will fare downstate. That will be a top-priority handicapping angle.

As for the Toddster, there was never any question that he would win his seventh Saratoga training title, and he did so with a record 36 winners, exactly half of them 2-year-olds.

Pletch won five Grade Ones – the Coaching Club American Oaks, Ruffian, King’s Bishop, Woodward and Spinaway – but then there were the ones that got away at odds-on, notably Quality Road in the Whitney, and Devil May Care in the Alabama.

With Pletcher you get Velazquez, and Johnny V won his fourth Spa riding crown with 54 winners, three more than Javier Castellano, who was our longshot pick. Due to a slow start, and taking off a couple of times to ride out-of-town, Ramon Dominguez settled for third, thereby snapping his string of nine straight NYRA meet titles.

I make Ramon 3-5 to start another streak at Belmont.

The two best stories of the meet had unhappy endings.

Lisa’a Booby Trap, the one-eyed, club-footed, fairy-tale filly who came out of Finger Lakes to win the Loudonville, came back to runn dead last in a division of the Riskaverse. And Admiral Alex, who made headlines winning his debut for the colorful 79-year-old trainer Leon Blusiewicz, finished dead last in the Travers, a race in which the Admiral was, for several flashes, a shorter price than Derby winner Super Saver.

Then there was Cleveland Johnson, a 60ish African-American who has been kicking around various backstretches since his teens. Once every 20 years are so, someone gives “V” a good horse to train, and on closing day, it looked for sure “V” would win his first-ever stake race with Ravalo.

Ravalo made the lead in midstretch of the Frank Sullivan Stakes…but was nailed on the wire by Awakino Cat.

It was difficult listening to the track announcer scream for the winner…when it was the loser who was the story.

The race of the meet?

For sure, I thought it would be the Whitney when Blame ran down Quality Road in the final 50 yards.

But, for sheer dramatics, nothing could top the Personal Ensign when Rachel Alexandra ran her lungs out trying to get a mile and a quarter, but was nailed late by Persistently, whose trainer trained the late, great Personal Ensign a generation ago.

The beat of the meet?

No doubt the Travers when Fly Down lost the bob to Afleet Express. It seems that I took the beat a lot worse than trainer Zito.

The horse of the meet?

Majesticperfection looked like the best sprinter since Groovy winning the Vanderbilt, only to suffer a career-ending leg injury two weeks ago.

Ironically, I wrote here a month back that trainer Asmussen likely would run three favorites in the Breeders’ Cup. But Majesticperfection and Kantharos went down, and now who knows about Rachel?

Finally, no one respects D. Wayne Lukas more than I do, but enough already with the excuses for Mine That Bird. Just because MTB is a gelding doesn’t mean his connections have to run him into the ground.

How embarrassing was it to read somewhere that “Quality Road was the only Grade One horse In the Woodward”?

How quickly they forget?

Wayne, please do us all a favor, and announce Mine That Bird’s retirement.

Yesterday will do.

Thanks for tuning in. Enjoy the week, and see you back here on Friday for a look at the Belmont opening.


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