P. Val is racing's comeback kid

Jockey Patrick Valenzuela is once again on top of the world. But it was a long road back.

Updated: August 13, 2002, 2:56 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

No Fear.

In small but distinctly bright red letters, those two words were etched on the top of Patrick Valenzuela's shiny black boots, plainly visible as he stood on the podium in the interview room at Gulfstream Park 10 years ago. P Val was there to talk about his two Breeders' Cup victories that day aboard Eliza in the Juvenile Fillies and Fraise in the Turf.

It was very well known even then that the talented jockey had battled substance abuse, and so when members of the media caught a glimpse of those two words on Valenzuela's boots, the questions began.

Was this a personal message?

Was it a mantra?

Was the troubled rider revealing to all he had no fear now in his personal life?

Of course it was none of the above. Valenzuela took great joy in replying that he was simply endoring a line of sportswear known as No Fear.

The moment was a microcosm of Valenzuela's life. The profound was really simple; the obvious was much more complex.

Valenzuela won 83 races in 77 days at Santa Anita in 1979 to set a meet record for an apprentice rider that still stands. Valenzuela was destined for greatness; a plaque in the Hall of Fame was certain to be his. The kid was a natural.

But even though he was on that podium in 1992 at Gulfstream celebrating two major career accomplishents, nothing in his personal life was easy. It would be one of the last times anyone wanted to talk to him about his professional skills. For the rest of the decade, when the name Patrick Valenzulea was mentioned, it was usually for the wrong reasons: drugs, failed rehabs and suspensions.

It was all pointing to the inevitable, but his life was never that easy to deduce.

"I've always been optimistic -- very confident," Valenzuela says on his way to work at Del Mar. "No matter what's happened in the past I have been gifted from the Lord to ride racehorses. This optimism has helped me."

In one of sport's most remarkable stories of resiliency, 39-year-old Valenzuela is racing's comeback player of the year, maybe even the decade. After the California Horse Racing Board gave him another -- and possibly final -- chance to resume riding last December, Valenzuela has done more than revive his career. He appears to have regained a life.

But like most recovering addicts, he has not done it alone. But the remarkable thing about Valenzuela's supporters is that they have stuck with him even after some very well-publicized failures.

His agent Nick Cosato is still with him, in charge of the P. Val book for a third time. It's a professional relationship that began nine years ago, even though Valenzuela only rode for about two of those. But Cosato doesn't doubt, nor dwell on the past.

"Obviously he is a tremendous talent," Cosato states, "But he is also very caring -- he has a big heart.

"Right now, I've never seen him stronger mentally. Everybody sees he's a different person. In the past, little things might set his trigger off. Things that we people without substance problems wouldn't even think twice about or really understand. But now he's able to talk with me about those things and not letting that build to a big burden on his shoulders.

"Yes, he's left me disappointed, but while I get paid good to work for him, there is more to it than just money when you know Pat."

"Nick has been a good, good friend," Valenzuela beams. "He's a fellow Christian who has been a really big supporter. He's driven me around when I wasn't allowed to drive. We've played golf together and had dinners all the time. A comeback takes hard work, and more than one person. "

Ironically, Valenzuela says he never gave up on himself, even while doing things that could have destroyed him. He managed to stay in relatively good physical shape while suffering emotional anguish. He claims to never have lost confidence in his riding even as he tried to escape from personal issues.

"I never doubted the Lord would take care of me. He gave me the ability to communicate with the animal, and in turn, they run to the best of their ability from the confidence I give them."

They ran exceptionally well for P. Val at the three-month Hollywood Park meeting that wrapped up last month. He walked away with 74 wins, 13 more than anyone else and won the riding title, his first in 11 years. "It was really, really, really special. It has gotten me live mounts and regained confidence from trainers and fellow riders."

"Horses run like scared rabbits for him. They always have," says Cosato. "His attitude is positive and I think the horses pick that up. He comes into that paddock and can be on a 30-1 longshot or an 8-5 favorite and he makes you feel he's going to win. Horses sense fear and I also think they pick up on a jockey who is positive and confident, and Patrick is."

To get his riding license back, Valenzuela agreed that track officials can drug test him any time he's on the premises. He says it's no problem; he has his faith as well his three daughters at Del Mar to add to the support group that includes the Winners' Foundation, a racetrack organization for recovering addicts. Valenzuela also visits the backstretch each morning, exercises a few horses and talks with everybody from trainers to grooms. He is happy, beyond description, to be back this time.

It all seems so good. IS everything finally is right in his life? Hopefully so.There are many rooting that this time, all is as it appears for Patrick Valenzuela.