ARCADIA, Calif. -- On the first Saturday in November, jockey Pat Valenzuela grabbed the reins and held on tight as Arazi dazzled the racing world with an electrifying stretch run to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Six months later, on the first Saturday in May, Valenzuela and Arazi will be reunited at Churchill Downs for their first race together since then.
At the Breeders' Cup, they were a novelty act. Arazi, who had raced exclusively in France for trainer Francois Boutin, was making his first start on dirt and was an unknown commodity outside Europe. This time, they will occupy center stage as the overwhelming favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
That's not all that has changed. Valenzuela, who has continued his recovery after two cocaine-related suspensions, is now under contract with Allen Paulson, Arazi's co-owner, and stands to make more money in one year than any jockey previously.
Most jockeys in the United States act as independent contractors, seeking the best mount in each race. They receive 10 percent of their horse's winnings. A top jockey can make $1 million in a year.
Under his new contract, Valenzuela gets a base salary of approximately $500,000, and there are incentives -- such as a bonus for winning the Triple Crown -- that could bring as much as $1 million from Paulson alone.
Although Valenzuela must ride every Paulson horse, even if it is a 50-to-1 plug, he can ride any horse in races in which Paulson does not have a runner. So Valenzuela has unprecedented earning potential.
The one-year personal services contract with Paulson, a 70-year-old corporate-jet manufacturer, is the only one of its kind among a star jockey and an owner in the United States today. And it raised an often-debated question: Just how crucial is a jockey to the success of a horse?
Europeans place far more emphasis on the importance of jockeys because the racing there, almost exclusively on turf, is slower paced and places a greater premium on a rider's judgment.
This is in marked contrast to the run-till-you-drop American version. Consequently, most top European riders are under contract.
Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Arazi's other owner, has a contract with Steve Cauthen, and it was Cauthen who rode Arazi in his only 1992 start earlier this month in France. Now that Arazi is on American soil, Paulson's contract with Valenzuela takes precedent.
This has added another layer of intrigue to Arazi's quest. Arazi had arthroscopic knee surgery last fall, has had only one Derby prep, must again cross the Atlantic, adjust to a dirt track and now be reunited with a jockey who hasn't seen him in six months.
Valenzuela says, in this case, the jockey does not matter.
"When they're that good," Valenzuela said, "it doesn't take much to ride them."