Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Don’t Think Anybody Would Do What He Did’ - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘I Don’t Think Anybody Would Do What He Did’

Trainer Todd Fincher, right, greets jockey Felipe Valdez aboard Evacuee after winning the Mt. Cristo Rey Handicap at Sunland Park on March 12, 2023

Fans tuning in to Sunday's Sunland Park Derby card may be surprised by the appearance of jockey Felipe Valdez' name in the program. With a mount in seven of the day's 11 races, the 43-year-old Valdez is in the midst of a comeback he truly never saw coming.

Plagued by injuries throughout his career, including a broken back that initially left him unable to walk and kept him out of the saddle for 3 ½ years, Valdez was finally forced to announce his retirement from the saddle in 2017. He hadn't ridden since March of 2016 at Santa Anita, when a fall broke his collarbone for the second time in five months and left him with damage to his right arm.

“All the pain I have is horrible and is not getting any better,” Valdez said in 2017. “I cannot keep living my life thinking I will be back.”

It took 13 surgeries and nearly seven years away from the racetrack, but Valdez did recover from his injuries. In December of 2022, he reached out to New Mexico-based trainer Todd Fincher with hopes of getting back to working with horses.

“I never thought I was gonna ride again; I was reaching out to gallop or work with horses,” Valdez explained. “He said, 'If you want to work, come down to New Mexico and I'll give you an opportunity.' He started putting me on horses to gallop in the mornings, and then he put me on my first horses in the afternoon. 

“The first day I came back, I won my first race after seven years (a Jan. 1 maiden special weight at Sunland aboard Fincher trainee Still In The Trap). It was very emotional, and I was very happy; I never thought that would happen again in my life.

“I'm gonna be very thankful for the rest of my life to this man, because I don't think anybody would do what he did. To give me the trust to ride good horses, you are just not going to find that with many people.”

Valdez had won a race for Fincher at Del Mar in 2015, so he was familiar with the trainer and was wanting to ride anywhere except California, the site of some of his worst injuries. 

Fincher, a long-time leading trainer in the Southwest region, said he granted Valdez a chance for several reasons.

“Well, everybody deserves an opportunity, don't they?” the trainer mused. “It wasn't just because of him. We kind of have a shortage of jockeys around here, so I thought if it works out, then it does. He's worked hard for it and he's earned it.”

A native of Mexico City, Valdez took out his license as an apprentice in 1997. He captured the riding title at Portland Meadows in 2001 and was among the top jockeys at Hastings Racecourse for several seasons before shifting his tack to Southern California.

The wreck at Hollywood Park that left Valdez with two fractured vertebrae occurred on Dec. 3, 2010. He spent a year between a wheelchair and a walker, wrestling with whether or not to agree to a specialized surgery with a 50 percent success rate. Even with the surgery, doctors warned Valdez he'd never ride again.

With a successful operation to implant pins in his spine, Valdez underwent extensive physical therapy and made it back to the winner's circle in April of 2014 at Emerald Downs. It was an emotional triumph, to be sure, but it came with plenty of warnings from his doctors.

A year and a half later, Valdez suffered a broken collarbone, fractured ribs, and a pinched lung in a fall at Los Alamitos. A second fall just five months later broke the collarbone again and damaged ligaments in his right arm. 

Once more, doctors were unconvinced Valdez would ever return to the races, and Valdez subsequently announced his retirement.

“I had had four or five surgeries then, and it was hell,” Valdez said. “I was in pain 24/7, I was not getting any better, and nothing was working.”

“In one moment of my life, I thought that I was lost,” he admitted. “I lost my health, my job, everything.”

There were several friends who kept Valdez from giving in to his injuries, among them Hector Palma, Luis Acosta, and an attorney named John.

“They supported me all the way, let me borrow money when the insurance wouldn't pay for one of my surgeries, and always gave me good hope that everything was going to get better,” said Valdez. “They showed me that nothing is going to last forever. Horses get injured, but with time, they get better, and humans are the same way.”

Eventually, after 13 surgeries with little improvement, Valdez decided to try something different.

“I stopped taking medications and just let my body heal, just gave it the time,” he said. “Now, I don't even take Tylenol or anything.”

Valdez also credits both his family and his dogs with helping his return to health.

“My daughters, especially my youngest, were always asking me when I was going to go back riding,” he explained. “I also got into the habit of going hiking every day with my dogs. They're like my second kids, and every day they would go to the door and bark and go crazy to go hiking, so every day we'd go four or five miles, even if I had to go slow.”

Valdez began supplementing his physical therapy routines with time on a mechanical exercise horse, and eventually felt strong enough to reach out to Fincher.

With 15 winners since his return to riding, including two stakes races, Valdez has a lot to be proud of. While he doesn't have a mount in the marquee race on Sunday's card, he has been tabbed to ride several morning-line favorites and feels good about his chances. 

Recently Valdez heard the story about New Mexico-based racing analyst Julie Farr's son, Bryce Bordieu, who lost his leg after an injury suffered when a horse flipped over on him during morning training hours at a training center. 

“It caught my eye because I went through something similar when I injured my back,” Valdez said. “I had an issue with one insurance company to cover my surgery, so I know how hard it can be. I don't really know him, but he's so brave, this kid. He's very passionate about life, knowing that he lost his leg but trying to be strong and live a normal life.

“I'm going to donate five percent of my earnings on Sunland Derby day to them so that he can get the prosthetic he needs. Hopefully I can help this guy and his family.”

Long-term, Valdez wants to stay healthy enough to ride a few more years. 

“I wish to be healthy, just to ride until I'm 50,” he said. “And, If I'm lucky, to be the leading rider here once before then!” 

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