Sports

Valdez back in the Winner's Circle | Emerald Downs

Jockey Felipe Valdez trackside at Emerald Downs, where he registered his first win in over three years last Sunday aboard 3-year-old filly Strawberry Dawn in the $18,900 feature race. - Courtesy photo/Jacob Pollowitz, Emerald Downs
Jockey Felipe Valdez trackside at Emerald Downs, where he registered his first win in over three years last Sunday aboard 3-year-old filly Strawberry Dawn in the $18,900 feature race.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/Jacob Pollowitz, Emerald Downs

For the Reporter

It's been a long road back for jockey Felipe Valdez.

But after 3½ long years of rehabilitation, the 35-year-old Mexico City native is back where the doctors said he'd never be again: the Winner's Circle.

Despite long odds and a lengthy recovery process from a devastating back injury, Valdez earned his first victory since November 26, 2010, when Strawberry Dawn romped in last Sunday's $18,900 feature race at Emerald Downs. As an encore, Valdez and the 3-year-old filly were all alone in the stretch, drawing off to win the feature race by a widening 8-½ lengths. While the race only counts as one win, Valdez admitted this victory had a little more meaning.

"Well, it was all business coming down the lane," Valdez said Thursday in the Quarter Chute Café at Emerald Downs. "I wanted to make sure I won the race first, but after the wire, I was a little emotional. It's been a long road."

Only days following his previous November victory, Valdez sustained two fractured vertebrae during a nasty spill at Hollywood Park. Unable to walk and barely able to move, Valdez' riding future appeared bleak. He never wavered from his resolve to return to the saddle, regardless of what the doctors said. Reduced to using crutches and canes for support, Valdez gradually gained momentum in his comeback.

After a successful surgery last October to fuse vertebrae, Valdez disposed of his cane in January and there was no stopping his forward thrust. As part of his physical therapy, Valdez spent six to eight hours in the gym everyday to train his body back to his days riding at Hastings Racecourse, where he was a top-10 rider for several years. Already motivated, Valdez said those closest to him pushed him over the top.

"Even when the first doctor told me that I might never walk again, I still had riding on my mind," Valdez said. "My family and friends gave me the support I needed to keep working hard. They were my strength."

Today, Valdez hopes to use Emerald Downs as a springboard to reestablish his riding career. By his side is venerable agent Keith Drebin, who carried Valdez' book in 2001, when Valdez captured the Portland Meadows riding title.

"I had been talking to Keith throughout my rehab," Valdez said. "He told me that when I'm ready, to make my way up to Emerald Downs, and here I am. My plan is to continue to work hard and do the best I can."

Talented group for Sunday's feature

The road to the $200,000 Longacres Mile (Grade 3) officially begins May 18 with the $50,000 Governor's Handicap at 6½ furlongs.

Unofficially, the road to The Mile begins Sunday, when a star-studded field of 11 older allowance runners race six furlongs for a $21,000 purse. A prep for the Governor's, the race will begin to sort out the older handicap division.

Evenly matched top to bottom, the runners are a combined 33-24-19 in 116 starts at Emerald Downs, with aggregate EmD earnings of $879,834.

Winning Machine, a three-time champion and 10th on the track's all-time earnings list with $314,488, makes his 8-year-old debut for Frank Lucarelli and Fleur De Lis Stables. Winless in seven starts last year, the Toccet gelding did place third in the Budweiser Handicap and twice finished second vs. allowance company.

Local stakes winners Mike Man's Gold, Finallygotabentley and Jebrica also make their 2014 debuts, while 2012 Top Sprinter Rocky's Quest and 2013 Turf Paradise Top Turf Horse Why Not Be Perfect add depth to the field. Newly turned 4-year-olds Somewhere With You, Scat Daddybaby and Country Rules were all solid 3-year-olds at Emerald Downs while Mr. Bowling and Running Tap are wildcards.

A Grade 3 winner in 2012, Mr. Bowling makes his first start since finishing 11th as the 6-to-1 third choice in the 2013 Longacres Mile for trainer Mike Puhich. Running Tap is a new shooter for owner/trainer Preston Boyd. A 6-year-old Pennsylvania-bred by Tapit, Running Tap has earned $273,975 in a 33-race career on the East Coast and was claimed for $20,000 by Boyd in January.

The field for Sunday's $21,000 allowance feature (all carry 120 pounds): Mr. Bowling, Isaias Enriquez; Somewhere With you, Jorge Rosales; Winning Machine, Javier Matias; Mike Man's Gold, Felipe Valdez; Scat Daddybaby, Gallyn Mitchell; Finallygotabentley, Leslie Mawing; Country Rules, Jose Zunino; Why Not Be Perfect, Anne Sanguinetti; Running Tap, Louis Zacherle; Rocky's Quest, Juan Gutierrez; Jebrica, Eliska Kubinova.

Sharp horses, new jacket equals aplenty

Trainer Jeff Metz credits his remarkable opening weekend – seven wins including a record-tying five-win day Saturday – on the lucky new Emerald Downs jacket he purchased opening day in The Gift Horse.

"Right after I bought the jacket, my horses finished first and second in race two, and things just took off from there," Metz said.

That's putting it mildly. In fact, Metz saddled the winners of races two, three, six, seven and 10, the latter victory by the 5-year-old gelding Attempt, tying Metz in the record books with Doris Harwood, Jim Penney and Tim McCanna as the only trainers in Washington state history to saddle five winners on one card.

For good measure, Metz, the defending training champion, added two more winners Sunday to finish opening week with a 7-3-0 record from 11 starts.

"It was a lot of fun, and great to have everything fall in place," Metz said. As for week two at Emerald Downs, Metz "only" has two horses entered Saturday but has the making of another big day Sunday with nine horses entered Sunday including Why Not Be Perfect in the $21,000 feature race for older horses at six furlongs.

Notes

Weekly honors: Trainer - Jeff Metz (11-7-3-0); jockey - Rocco Bowen (13-6-2-3); owner - Charles and Beate Holshouser (Appealing Artie); groom - Rafael Melendes (trainer Roy Lumm); Washington-bred - Strawberry Dawn (Sue & Tim Spooner). ... Spot On Babe earned the week's biggest Beyer – 78 – for her 2¾-length victory in 1:02.15 for 5½ furlongs. A 4-year-old Washington-bred filly by Tribal Rule, Spot On Babe was one of three opening week wins for trainer Frank Lucarelli and the second of two wins for Ron Crockett Inc. ... 4-year-old geldings Whistle Cat (70) and Surprise Sale (71) also earned big Beyers opening week. Surprise Sale, 7-for-10 lifetime, was claimed for $4,000 by trainer Sam Dronen. ....

Sunday's seventh race sub-feature is a $19,950 allowance for 3-year-old non-winners of two races lifetime. The Doris Harwood-trained Kenai King and the Chris Stenslie-trained Stikine Slough head a five-horse field at 5 ½ furlongs. Harwood trained several top 2-year-olds last year, a group that included stakes-placed Kenai King, Top 2-Year-Old Male Del Rio Harbor and stakes-winning Noosito. ... Saturday's fourth race at Santa Anita, a $30,000 starter handicap for fillies and mares at one mile on turf, includes three horses that won races last year at Emerald Downs: Our Little Hen, Ronda Rocks and Quinnette. ... Speaking of Santa Anita, its 2013-14 Winter/Spring meet concludes Sunday and its new Spring/Summer meet opens Friday, April 25 and runs through Sunday, June 29. ... Attempt, the final winner of Metz's record-tying five-win day, could become the meet's first two-time winner in Saturday's seventh race. ...

Seattle Game, No. 3 on the track's active win list, shoots for her 13th Emerald Downs victory in Saturday's fourth race for older fillies and mares at five furlongs. Seattle Game is 15-for-46 lifetime and 12-for-27 at Emerald Downs. ... Sun Downs in Kennewick begins its six-day mixed Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse meet Saturday with an eight-race card at 1 p.m. ... Former Northwest jockey Chad Hoverson, who rode Irish Bear to victory in the 1987 Longacres Derby, celebrates his 60th birthday Monday. ... Reminder: Emerald Downs Live airs 2-6 p.m. every Saturday on Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Channel 179) with Joe Withee, Jacob Pollowitz and Jamie Hudson.

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