Former El Pasoan Gained Great Fame as Jockey
Racing fans throughout the country have been mourning the death of Milo Valenzuela, one of the sport’s greatest jockeys. Here in El Paso, the mourning is a little more personal.
The name “Valenzuela” has long been a staple of horse racing lore in the El Paso area. Several members of the family of that name got their start in horse racing in New Mexico, including Sunland Park, and some of them went on to national fame.
None gained more fame than Milo Valenzuela, who died at the age of 74 on Sept. 2 at his home in Arcadia, California.
MILO WON the Kentucky Derby twice and the Preakness twice and his performance aboard the immortal Kelso gained him even greater fame. Valenzuela won 22 times in 35 tries aboard the gelding. Nineteen were stakes triumphs, and Kelso was Horse of the Year three times under him.
All in all, Valenzuela recorded 2545 victories. Among them were some of the greatest upsets in racing history. He first gained national recognition in 1956 when he rode Porterhouse to victory over Swaps in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park. Swaps was considered all but unbeatable at the time.
In 1958, Silky Sullivan was the rage of the country and was considered a shoe-in for the Kentucky Derby. Valenzuela beat the super horse aboard Tim Tam before 118,000 fans at Churchill Down. It was such a big upset that Valenzuela was called to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Valenzuela also won the Preakness with Tim Tam that year and might have taken the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown had not Tim Tam suffered a bone fracture in the stretch run.
MILO AND his family moved to El Paso when he was 12 years old. Soon after, he found himself exercising horses and cleaning stalls at New Mexico tracks. He won his first race at Rillito Racetrack in Tucson, Arizona.
But it was in California that he began to show his exceptional talent and found himself riding all over the country.
Ray York, another legendary jockey now 76 years old, had this to say about Milo: "I can remember him coming to the old Tanforan Racetrack. It was the first time I ever seen him ride. I watched him from the quarter-pole to the wire, and I said, 'There's a little son of a gun that can ride,' and boy he did."
ALTHOUGH Milo’s family was originally from Mexico, he was born in McNary, Texas. Around the track, Milo was known as being personable and generous. At home, he was a doting father who stressed the importance of education.
"That's because he didn't have an education himself," said his daughter, Patricia, the oldest of five Valenzuela children.
"We all went to school and we all graduated, and we all handed our diplomas to him, and that was one of his biggest thrills -- more than winning a $100,000 race," she said.
One of Milo’s nephews was Pat Valenzuela, who was California’s leading rider for years and also won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Pat got his start at Sunland Park.
THERE WAS no Sunland Park racetrack when Milo began riding but he did ride at Sunland during its opening season in 1959. He was already famous and created quite a stir.
Milo Valenzuela retired from racing in 1980 and last year was elected to horse racing's Hall of Fame.
He battled diabetes in his later years. He is survived by daughters Patricia and Diana and sons Milo Jr., John and Richard. His wife, Rosa Delia, died in 1999.
Some of Milo’s relatives still live in El Paso, including a sister, Manuela, and sisters-in-law Lucy and Susie, who worked in the track kitchen at Sunland until recently.
Veteran sports journalist and author Ray Sanchez welcomes suggestions for his column. Contact him at (915) 584-0626, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.raysanchezbooks.com