By Jonathan Litner for The Louisville Courier-Journal

Back in the saddle at age 53, Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Patrick Valenzuela recently said he feels 80 percent, “so these guys better watch out when I put that 20 percent back in.”

The rider’s up-and-down career has included victories in most every American classic but also struggles with drug and alcohol abuse. Valenzuela’s making his latest comeback in Louisiana, where in 2008 he rode his 4,000th winner.

“Getting back to winning again was such a treat,” Valenzuela said. “It’s been a long and hard road and I’m a little older, but am also more experienced.

“…When I got here all the calls in the first book were basically gone. We were hustling to get mounts, but things are starting to change now and it looks like we’ve gotten over the hump and they’re looking up.”

Valenzuela has two wins, a runner-up finish and three third-place efforts in 10 starts so far at Fair Grounds’ latest meet. Riding mostly for smaller barns, he told the track’s publicity department he’s hoping to soon get aboard horses for trainers such as Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss and Al Stall.

Valenzuela, who became the youngest Santa Anita Derby winner at age 17 in 1980, rode Sunday Silence to victory in the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Lately, he’s been aboard mostly claimers. A maiden special weight entry of Valenzuela’s on Monday finished last of seven.

But the pair of victories — the second of which came with a fist pump — have made getting back in racing shape worth it. When Valenzuela retired in 2011 after more than 30 years riding, he cited a gal bladder surgery and struggles to keep weight down.

What keeps him coming back?

“I can’t even explain the feeling of winning,” Valenzuela said. “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t ride races, but a win for $5,000 or $5 million – it doesn’t matter – the feeling when you pass that wire first is like euphoria.”