The Kentucky Derby trail and short memories go hand in hand. Remember not too long ago when Mark Valeski was the next up-and-coming star, grabbing everyone’s attention with his gutsy nose defeat to El Padrino in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II)?
Well, following one throw-out loss in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), it’s now Mark who?
Even owner Brereton Jones is wondering if the Derby is the right spot for the son of Proud Citizen.
“I’m not 100 percent sure we’ll be in the Derby,” Jones said while waiting for his Kentucky Oaks filly Believe You Can to come out on the track for her work. “It all depends on how he works tomorrow. In all honesty, he might be better off in the Peter Pan. It’s a grade II and we haven’t won a graded stakes yet. And he won’t have to run against 19 other horses. But his (speed) numbers actually are not bad, and Larry (trainer Jones) thinks he really belongs. So in the final analysis, I’m going to leave it up to Larry. He’s a great horse trainer and a lot of owners make the mistake of telling their trainer what to do.”
A few minutes later, Mark Valeski came jogging up to the finish line with Jones aboard and stopped for a few seconds. The colt looked fantastic. He is extremely athletic looking with great muscle tone and definition. From a physical standpoint, he looked coiled and ready to unleash the real Mark Valeski.
With the 180-pound Jones in the saddle, he barreled around the racetrack at a strong clip and didn’t sound as if he were blowing at all.
“As of right this minute, I’m not saying that it’s 100% we’ll be in the Derby,” Jones said. That work tomorrow is gonna be important. He has to show me, ‘I’m better now than I’ve ever been.’ I just want to make sure he gets over this track really well.
“Brereton is trying to get cold feet. He just doesn’t want to do something that’s gonna look stupid and have everyone say he got Derby fever.”
The reason for all the uncertainty is Mark Valeski’s recent upset in the Louisiana Derby to the 109-1 shot Hero of Order.
“I beat Hero of Order the race before (the Black Gold) with Icon Ike and I can’t mention Icon Ike and Mark Valeski in the same sentence,” Jones said. “Ike is a good horse but he ain’t no Mark Valeski.”
Most people are aware that Mark Valeski threw a shoe before the Louisiana Derby, but not many realize that he got bumped at the start and stepped on, likely by his own stablemate Mr. Bowling, tearing off a chunk of his foot.
“My other horse apparently stepped on him,” Jones said. “He was the only horse who got close enough to him to do it. All I saw was that they bumped coming out of the gate. But he came back with the whole bulb ripped off of his foot. So he had to have gotten hit by a horse and Mr. Bowling is the only horse who got close enough to him. A 109-1 shot wins the race, I blow a shoe in the post parade, and get run over by my other horse. This is divine intervention. I had nothing to do with it. It came from above. I just wasn’t supposed to win that race.
“Everybody uses the turf to dirt angle for handicapping or synthetic to dirt. Well I’m gonna use the shoe off to shoe on angle. Every time I’ve lost a shoe and still run a good race I’ve never been beaten in the next race back. I’ve won every time. So that’s my angle.”
Jones also feels that, despite the recent defeat, Mark Valeski’s speed figures measure up well in this field.
“If you really look at this horse’s Ragozin numbers, he’s almost a mirror image of Hard Spun coming into the race,” he said. “If he throws in a Hard Spun kind of race we’ll be alright. He ran a “6 ½” in the sprint, and then came back and ran a “6” in the Risen Star in his first race going long. He came back and threw in a “5 ¼” with the shoe off and picking up six pounds. This horse has never taken a backward step. A lot of these have bounced after running a big number.”
As for Mark Valeski being a forgotten horse, Jones said, “That’s Good. I’m enjoying this part of it. I remember a horse called Giacomo. I was stabled next to that sonofagun and I didn’t know John Shirreffs, but we talked a lot and we got to know each other that week. I had to ask him what the name of his horse was. I had never hard of him. I didn’t remember it until after the race. He won, and like us, he didn’t win a prep that year.”
Jones never used to gallop Mark Valeski, but he got tired of his exercise riders taking the easy way out on the colt, so he began getting on him himself.
“I gallop him because he used to be lazy,” Jones said. “He didn’t want to gallop. He’d go out there and do as little as he could and just what you made him do and nothing more. The exercise boys loved him, because it made their work easy. I would tell them, “He’s not getting anything out of it; you’ve got to make him gallop. They’d say, ‘No that’s that way he wants to gallop.’ So, I’d tell them, ‘Well then you’re fired off of him. You can ride other horses and I’m gonna ride him. Y’all get mad because I start riding the good horses when were coming up on the big races. Well that’s because y’all want to do it your way’
“With all the speed in there he can be placed anywhere. He’ll sit wherever we put him, and Rosie (Napravnik) has such a knack of figuring out the pace real quick that she can put him in the spot he’s supposed to be in.
“I told Brereton, ‘When I go over, I’m not leading him over there and saying, ‘Man I hope I hit the board.’ When I leave this barn I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna win this race.’”
Now all he has to do is work well tomorrow. If he does and runs in the Derby, you can have confidence knowing that Jones believes he can win it.
*Listen to more of Larry Jone's thoughts on Mark Valeski on Talkin' Horses with The Blood-Horse.