Jose Valdivia, Jr., with a new agent, renewed energy and permanent move back to California, took time Wednesday to reflect on his victory aboard Ruler on Ice in last year’s Belmont Stakes.
Unlike Mario Gutierrez, Valdivia flew mostly under the radar in 2011 and encountered none of the scrutiny leading up to the Belmont that Gutierrez is facing.
“I heard that he (Gutierrez) almost got hit in the head with a tape recorder the other day by someone trying to sneak to the front of the reporters,” Valdivia said. “It’s night and day coming into the Belmont having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness compared to how it was for me.”
Valdivia captured the Belmont aboard 24-1 Ruler On Ice and the pundits quickly went scrambling to find out information about the rider.
“Not one person from the press even talked to me that week,’’ he remembered. “The only people who knew who I was were the security guards and the horsemen in the stable area. The only contact I had with television was when NBC called in all the riders to give their name and answer a few brief questions like where are you from and where do you ride.”
Though Ruler On Ice was lightly regarded, the media should have been aware of Valdivia. The 37-year-old native of Lima, Peru and nephew of retired jockey Fernando Toro began his career in New York and rode his first winner at Belmont Park in 1994. Seven years later, he piloted Val Royal to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile on the Belmont turf.
“This race is unlike the other Triple Crown races,” Valdivia explained. When you go in the gate, you can feel the electricity and you’re so pumped up. The crowd is screaming as you come by the stands the first time, but then when you hit the backside, everything changes. It’s eerie, you don’t hear anything. At Churchill Downs there are people all the way around the track cheering, but not at Belmont. It was a sloppy track that day and all I could hear was the splattering of the hooves. When you get to the far turn, then you hear the crowd noise start to build again.”
Valdivia recalled his thoughts during the race as if it was yesterday. “This may be the only time these horses go a mile and a half in their lives. Besides pedigree, a lot rides on how they settle and how relaxed they are. My horse was sitting pretty down the backstretch and I kept waiting and waiting. I got a little excited at the quarter pole because I was hearing whips cracking behind me and the riders smooching, but I still had a lot of horse. At that point I thought I had a shot to hit the board.”
Valdivia got a scare at the top of the stretch when Brilliant Speed pulled alongside. “I thought he was going to blow right by me, but when he didn’t, I looked back at the eighth pole, saw that Stay Thirsty and (jockey Javier) Castellano weren’t gaining fast enough and at the sixteenth pole I said to myself, ‘Holy cow, I’m going to win the Belmont!”
Valdivia left California in 2010 to ride on the New York, New Jersey and Delaware circuits. He returned to the Golden State briefly toward the end of last year and came back in March to stay. His wife and children have relocated to Southern California and the family plans to move back into the home they had rented out the last two years.
“I have a new agent (Dudley Osborne) who is enthusiastic, has a lot of passion for the game and believes in me all out. I’ve been working non-stop, seven days a week and I think it’s starting to pay off. I’ve got some 2-year-olds coming up that I’m pretty excited about. And I was back on Rail Trip for (owner Samantha) Siegel in the Los Angeles Handicap.”
Valdivia won the 2009 Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup aboard Rail Trip and was pleased with his recent fourth in the Los Angeles. “I thought he ran very well for his first race back,” said Valdivia. “Even though he’s seven years old and has run 18 times, he hasn’t really gotten dirt kicked in his face much. He was on the rail the other day and I think that experience will really help him. (Trainer) Ron (Ellis) has done such a good job with him.” Ellis has been one of Valdivia’s biggest supporters throughout his career.
The rider is currently tied for 11th in the standings with eight victories He is named on two horses Thursday, including Bella’s Fantasy in the featured seventh race for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
For California horse racing fans, It doesn’t get any better than Betfair Hollywood Park this weekend.
In addition to simulcast wagering on I’ll Have Another’s quest for the Triple Crown, the Inglewood track Saturday will feature three stakes on the 11-race card, a pair of giveaways, and a contest in conjunction with the Belmont Stakes.
Heading the trio of local stakes is the Grade I $250,000 Charles Whittingham Memorial Handicap at 1 1-4 miles on turf, which will be carded as the 10th race. Acclamation will be favored to take his third straight Whittingham and sixth consecutive victory overall. Earlier on the card will be the Grade II $150,000 Honeymoon Handicap, featuring 123-pound highweight Lady of Shamrock, and the Manhattan Beach Stakes, a wide open contest for 3-year-old fillies. The Honeymoon and Manhattan Beach will go as the third and sixth races, respectively.
To accommodate all the action, first post will be 11 a.m., with the gates opening at 8 a.m. The first simulcast race from Belmont Park is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. A shot glass set, commemorating I’ll Have Another’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories, will be given out with each paid admission while supplies last. Also, 5,000 I’ll Have Another posters will be handed out at the entrance gates, courtesy of Television Games Network.
I’ll Have Another merchandise will be sold in the Betfair Hollywood Park gift shop, with items including hats, t-shirts and artwork.
Fans wanting a unique souvenir can purchase pari-mutuel tickets on I’ll Have Another for as little as $2. All wagers for the Belmont Stakes will have each horse’s name printed on the ticket.
Patrons can also enter the free Belmont Dream Contest. One person will be selected to receive $1,000 to wager on the Belmont runner of their choice.
The weekend kicks off with Friday night racing beginning at 7:05 p.m., immediately followed by a concert by The Wailers. The Redondo Beach Stakes is the Sunday feature, along with the free Horses and Homers contest where $600 in prize money is up for grabs.
CLOSING STRIDES—Eddie Olczyk, lead analyst for the NHL on NBC, and studio co-host Keith Jones were press box visitors Sunday at Betfair Hollywood Park. The pair had flown in that morning from New Jersey, where they had seen the Kings defeat the Devils 2-1 in overtime Saturday in Newark. Olczyk was a member of the 1994 Stanley Cup Champion New York Rangers…….For 85-year-old jockey agent Ivan Puhich, Thursday was just another day hustling mounts on the backstretch. By looking at his calm demeanor, one would never know that his rider, Mario Gutierrez, is two days away from a chance to sweep the Triple Crown. “I sent the kid up to Canada a week ago to get away from all this and clear his head,” said Puhich. “That’s his home (Vancouver). He’ll be at Belmont today and I’ll talk to him later in the day.”………Several prominent horses hit the track this week to prepare for upcoming stakes engagements. John Sadler sent out his pair of ace distaffers, Zazu and Switch. Each worked Sunday. Zazu, tuning up for the Grade I Vanity Handicap June 16, went 6 furlongs in 1:12 1/5, while Switch, prepping for the Desert Stormer June 17th, worked 5 furlongs in :59 4/5. Include Me Out, also preparing for the Vanity, drilled 5 furlongs in 1:01 for Ron Ellis. Impressive 2-year-old maiden winner Amarish stepped a half mile in :48 1/5 Wednesday and could run next in the Willard Proctor Memorial June 16th for *Jeff Bonde*……..No one was knocked out of Show Me the Money Sunday and five still remain alive in the winner-take-all contest.
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