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Jose Valdivia / Hugh Robertson's Hotshot Anna

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois – During the one-month fall race meet in 1995 at Santa Anita Park a 20-year-old Peruvian jockey named Jose Valdivia knocked out 13 winners. Not bad – not bad at all. He tied in the standings with future Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye and finished two wins in front of future Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, whose meet was abbreviated. Ahead of Valdivia were future Hall of Famers Kent Desormeaux, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, and Alex Solis.

“In the jock’s room, everywhere I turned around was a Hall of Famer,” Valdivia said. “Hall of Famer here, Hall of Famer there, and then there was me. ‘What am I doing here?’”

There are likely no Hall of Famers in the jock’s room with Valdivia this summer at Arlington Park, but all the lessons learned at the feet of master riders more than 20 years ago still serve Valdivia well.

“You could learn so much from those guys. You didn’t even know the things they were doing to you during a race until they pointed them out to you,” said Valdivia.

The prestige is nowhere near the same right now at Arlington as it was on the star-laden SoCal circuit back in the day, or when Valdivia won the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Mile aboard Val Royal. But Valdivia, who resurrected his career when he came to Arlington several years ago, surely never had a more productive run than during the third week of August at Arlington.

Maybe he came into the week with an added jolt of motivation. Valdivia has been leading jockey at Arlington every season since he arrived in Chicago just before the 2015 meet following an ice-cold winter and spring riding in Florida. In 2018, he won the jockey’s title by 30 wins over Mitchell Murrill. Yet when Valdivia came back to Arlington to ride Aug. 17 following a two-day trip to Colonial Downs, Murrill had gotten hot and overhauled Valdivia atop the 2019 Arlington standings.

That didn’t last long. During the four-day week spanning Aug. 15 through Aug. 18, Valdivia went 14-4-1 from 25 mount. He rode three winners Thursday, four each Friday and Saturday, and three more Sunday. That’s one more winner in four days than during that entire fall meet at Santa Anita in 1995 and 13 more than Valdivia rode during the 2015 winter meet at Gulfstream, where he languished to deeply that he made the radical move to Arlington. Partnered here with Steve Leving, who came out of his behind-the-scenes role as a racing manager and bloodstock agent to return to work as a jockey’s agent, Valdivia won the Arlington riding title months after he was searching for any kind of live mount in Florida and his local dominance has persisted since – until midway through this summer, at least.

“Hey, it’s my track,” Valdivia, 44, said with a laugh. “Sometimes everything comes together. When I ride, I believe I can win every race; that’s my mentality.”

Valdivia came back down to earth last week, when he rode a productive but far more modest six winners. Entering the Aug. 29 card, Valdivia had 83 wins at the meeting, eight more than Murrill, who is having a strong season of his own. A fifth straight Arlington riding title likely awaits Valdivia, though he will spend some time out of town again to ride races at Kentucky Downs in late August and early September. No Hall of Famers around, but, hopefully, now it’s Valdivia imparting sage tips to the younger jocks at Arlington.

Anna rolling again

Probably “cheap” is the wrong word to describe the longtime horseman Hugh Robertson. “Thrifty” likely works better, and no doubt thrift formed a considerable part of any childhood upbringing on a Nebraska farm in the middle of the 20th century. But rather than hop a plane from Chicago to Cleveland and rent a car to make the rest of the trip to Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania, Robertson drove there from the Arlington area to watch the mare he owns and trains, Hotshot Anna, race Aug. 21 in the $100,000 Satin N Lace Stakes.

Why fly when you can just as well drive? It takes a little more worth but might be worth the effort and given the exigencies of air travel these days is not much more taxing. Robertson takes a similar approach to buying young horses at auction, a practice in which he has successfully engaged for decades. It might take more work, thinking about off-brand sires, scouring the back end of a sales catalogue, looking at a bunch of yearlings whose appeal is buried deeper than most buyers are willing to peer. But why spend $100,000 when you can get a useful horse for $20,000?

That was what Robertson forked over for Hotshot Anna at the Keeneland September sale of 2015 – and that was a lot by Robertson’s standards. He’s bought countless horses for less than $10,000 who’ve gone on to useful careers in his barn and under his training. Often Robertson will buy a horse in partnership, but he also regularly purchases a horse himself before offering a stake in the animal to one of his clients, which is what he did with Hotshot Anna. Everyone turned him down.

“She was kind of small – she’s still pretty small – and I guess they didn’t like the pedigree,” Robertson said.

Indeed, Trappe Shot, Hotshot Anna’s sire (she’s out of a Holy Bull mare), had hit his nadir of popularity (or lack thereof) at the time. He’s since rebounded to some extent, and Hotshot Anna has been part of his resurgence. Robertson didn’t make the drive to Erie for nothing as Hotshot Anna won her race by nearly two lengths, the second year in a row she’s captured the Satin N Lace. The money there is good but it’s even better in the $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters, which Hotshot Anna won in 2018 and will try to win again next month. Already the mare has earned more than $623,000 for her owner-trainer, and Robertson’s never had a horse with a bigger bankroll. If she wins the Masters again and if Robertson’s softer-hearted family convinces him not to sell her as a broodmare prospect this fall, Hotshot Anna, who recovered from a fractured withers sustained over the winter, will return to race again in 2020 with a chance to become a $1 million earner. That is a lot of gasoline to power the Robertson-mobile.