Valdivia thanks Ward for rejuvenating riding career
Edited press release from Arlington
In 2015, Jose Valdivia Jr. shifted his tack to Arlington International Racecourse in search of a fresh start. The journeyman rider who began his North American riding career at Belmont Park in 1994 credits trainer Wesley Ward for spurring him to make the move. He began riding for Ward as an apprentice in California, until the trainer moved his string east. Years later, when Valdivia was riding in Delaware, Ward shipped in his runners and gave Valdivia the mounts, and the pair began winning races together again.
“[Ward] was the one that brought it up to me,” Valdivia recalled. “He said, ‘If I can get you a top agent, would you be willing to go somewhere else?’”
The jockey jumped at the chance.
“It’s all about having either the right agent, or the right outfit to ride for. In Florida, we weren’t doing very good – I was coming off an injury – and he was the only one helping me at the time.”
Ward recommended jockey agent Steve Leving, who had once held Ward’s own book when he was riding. At first, Valdivia says, he was unsure about using someone who hadn’t been an agent in over 20 years. But Ward didn’t have to work too hard to convince Valdivia.
“[Ward] said, ‘he’s very knowledgeable, and you need a top agent. You will be leading rider,’” said Valdivia. “Those were his words. So I jumped at the opportunity. He was true to his word.”
The rider went on to recount the trainer’s advice.
“He said, ‘Listen, you just have to start winning, because people want to see you win. Once you start winning, everything comes together. Nobody is going to question you if I put you on a horse in a stakes race. You have the experience. But if you’re not even winning, people will say, oh, he’s no good anymore. So you need to win, and sometimes you need to go wherever you can do it.’ I was lucky enough to win the title and go on and have a very good second half of the year after that.”
Valdivia earned 80 wins in 2015 to secure the title of Arlington’s leading rider. He then went on to have successful fall and winter seasons, riding winners at Keeneland and Fair Grounds. While Valdivia has traveled across the world to ride for Ward, he says he is very happy to be back at Arlington for another season. He carries a quiet confidence that he will take the title for leading rider again, despite a summer schedule that may cause him to miss a few days at the Illinois track.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh you’ve got to do even better,’” Valdivia said. “But I have a really good agent; we started off yesterday with a bunch of seconds, and luckily we broke off and had a win. I want to win every race that I’m out there. If it comes our way, it comes; if it doesn’t because I’m traveling and losing time, then so be it. More than anything I would love to win the most races here. I’m just going to be thankful to have the opportunity to do it again. Whatever comes my way I’ll be very thankful for it.”
Valdivia is grateful for where he is today, but he never stops dreaming of getting back to the very top of the sport. In 2011 he got a taste of Triple Crown glory when he guided Ruler On Ice to a win in the Belmont S. (G1) for trainer Kelly Breen. In 2001 he won the Breeders’ Cup Mile on (G1) Val Royal for Julio Canani, and finished second aboard Rail Trip in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) for Ron Ellis. Those memories keep him pushing to reach the highest level of racing once again.
“I was able to taste some of the heights, and I’ve been in some of the lows where you feel like nobody wants to touch you with a 10 foot pole. You always look forward to the big days. I wish I was one of those 20 riding in the [Kentucky] Derby. I was able to experience it, and once you get a little taste for the big one, you always want to go back to it. I’ve always felt like I belong – I’ve won a couple of those big races – so when I wake up in the morning I’m hopeful to get on the next American Pharoah, the next Secretariat, the horse that takes you up there. You deal with your daily business first, but we’re all chasing the good horse. Owners, trainers, jockeys – we’re all chasing the good horse because there’s nothing like it.”
Riding for trainers like Ward has been a much-needed breath of fresh air for a jockey who felt his career had gone stale.
“You can get to the bottom but as long as you’re in the starting gate, you have a chance,” Valdivia tells. “It came to be that I wasn’t feeling that opportunity anymore, and I began second guessing myself, and then Wesley came through. I started riding better quality horses, and now he’s sending me all over the place. He’s had enough confidence to ride me during Derby week where we won with a 2-year-old, he sent me to Ascot, and it’s really made it more enjoyable where I don’t think of it as a job.”
Valdivia smiles as he adds, “It’s been fun. I told [Ward] last week, when we were working horses at Keeneland, I said, ‘You know, you made riding, for me, fun again. This is what I’ve always loved, and for a couple of years there it became a job.’”
The jockey seems to be thriving since the change in locale just over a year ago. He is excited for the future without feeling the pressures of where his mounts will take him or when.
“I love coming to the track every day, I love going out of town to ride, so he’s made riding fun for me again. I think when I’m riding that way I’m so relaxed, and things play into my hands a lot better. You ride with a clearer mind; there’s no pressure whatsoever. I love what I do. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. There’s no pressure when you’re doing something you really enjoy.”
Photo courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography.