So much about the 2008 Triple Crown chase of Big Brown had a familiar ring to Ismael Valenzuela. He's ridden a superhorse. He's won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to fall short in the Belmont. And he knows, firsthand, the heartache of seeing a horse break down along the way, as the filly Eight Belles did at Churchill Downs. In 1958, atop the great Tim Tam, Valenzuela won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and entered the Belmont a 3--20 favorite. As the field turned for home, Valenzuela had Tim Tam in perfect position, a length and a half off the lead, when he felt the colt take a bad step. Tim Tam hobbled home on a fractured right foreleg. "I tried to ease him up, but he still wanted to run," says Valenzuela, now 73. "He finished second, and I couldn't pull him up until the clubhouse turn. Then I felt the tears start to come." Valenzuela saved his horse's life by dismounting and holding the injured leg off the ground until help arrived. Tim Tam never raced again but did live for another 24 years.
During three decades in the irons, Valenzuela won 2,545 races and was the regular rider for Kelso, who won five straight Horse of the Year titles in the early '60s. After hanging up his tack in 1980, Valenzuela was a trainer, then began breaking yearlings, teaching young horses the basics of racing. A widower, he has been retired since the late 1990s. Now suffering kidney failure and confined to a wheelchair, he lives with his oldest daughter, Patricia, in Arcadia, Calif., just a few furlongs from Santa Anita. At that track last month, Valenzuela was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame, thus rejoining his old partner. "All Tim Tam wanted to do was run," says Valenzuela. "It's great to be back with my old friend."