02/06/2008 12:00AM

At 40, Flores on track for career year

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When they've managed to run races at Santa Anita this winter, jockey David Flores has been the man to follow in stakes.

Make that the old man to follow.

Flores, who turned 40 on Tuesday, has won seven stakes at Santa Anita since the meeting began on Dec. 26. He is tied for most stakes wins with Garrett Gomez, the nation's leader in that category in 2007.

To reach that position, Flores has amassed arguably the best lineup of mounts in his career. He is the regular rider of the crack 3-year-old sprinter Bob Black Jack, the Triple Crown hopeful El Gato Malo, the outstanding 4-year-old filly Zenyatta, the improving 4-year-old male Monterey Jazz, sprinters Idiot Proof and Johnny Eves, and the top older horse Awesome Gem.

"I'm taking advantage of a good rush," he said Wednesday morning at Santa Anita. "It takes turns, for every jockey and trainer. Hopefully, this is my year."

Flores, who won three stakes on Dec. 26, could have a blockbuster weekend. On Saturday, Flores has important mounts in three $250,000 races - Awesome Gem in the San Antonio Handicap, Somethinaboutlaura in the Santa Maria Handicap, and Lovely Isle in the Las Virgenes Stakes. Sunday, he may ride Zenyatta in the $200,000 La Canada Stakes, although trainer John Shirreffs has not confirmed the filly's participation.

Wins in such races could lead to a career-defining season. Through Wednesday, his mounts have earned $1,252,807, leaving him in fourth place on the national list behind Gomez, Ramon Dominguez, and Kent Desormeaux.

Last year, Flores's mounts earned $10,463,397, the second time since 2002 that his mounts have surpassed $10 million in earnings. As recently as 2005, his mounts earned just $4,671,864.

His career best of $11.7 million was achieved in 1999, the year he rode Chilukki, Dixie Dot Com, Enjoy the Moment, General Challenge, Hookedonthefeelin, Silverbulletday, and Tout Charmant to major stakes wins.

Flores has compiled the current statistics even though Santa Anita lost 10 of the first 32 days of its meeting because the Cushion Track failed to drain following significant rain. The track, which is in the process of renovating the surface, is scheduled to resume racing Friday, although there's a chance the work won't be done until Saturday.

"I don't want to miss another day," Flores said. "This is not normal, especially at a meeting like this, the best meeting of the year."

Flores admits there were days in the past when he did not mind staying home. Earlier in this decade, a sore back and sour attitude affected his enthusiasm.

"I didn't want to ride every race," he said. "I wasn't riding the best horses. When you're not riding the best horse, it's not the same.

"Right now, I take advantage of the situation. I'm willing to put myself in the game. I won't hold back again. I'm ready to go."

That means riding more claiming races, he and agent Brad Pegram agreed. Flores admitted that earlier in his career he didn't want to ride the cheaper horses. But he said he feels better about riding claiming horses at Santa Anita because they are coming out of their races better on the Cushion Track.

Because he is riding more does not mean Flores is angling for the riding title, even though he is second at the meet behind Gomez, 29-24. Winning major stakes has more appeal to him than winning lots of races. Like many jockeys, Flores is after that elusive win in the Kentucky Derby.

El Gato Malo, the unbeaten winner of the San Rafael Stakes last month, could be that horse.

"I don't think he's shown his best yet," Flores said.

Trained by Craig Dollase, El Gato Malo will start in the $200,000 Sham Stakes on March 1. On the same day, Flores will ride the Dollase-trained Monterey Jazz in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. Monterey Jazz won the Strub Stakes by 4 1/2 lengths last weekend.

"He ran like a monster," Flores said.

Those are the type of horses that create memorable seasons.

"My target has been the big races," Flores said. "That's want I want to be known for."