12/28/2007 1:00AM

Flores has no reason to hide

EmailARCADIA, Calif. - Santa Anita Park president Ron Charles was having some fun with David Flores last Wednesday morning, a few hours before first post on the first day of the meet, while admiring a couple of upcoming promotional giveaways geared to jockeys.

"David, here you go," said Charles, picking up a wastebasket adorned with a wraparound group photo of the local riding colony. "Next time you really mess up a ride, just put this over your head and no one will know who you are."

Ah, racetrack humor. Everybody laughed, including Flores. But that's David, a 23-year veteran, soft-spoken, laconic, and polite to a fault. By now, he is accustomed to the slam-bang razzing of the world in which he lives (catch the hilarious Jose Valdivia impression of a postrace Flores interview at a dinner theater near you), and he copes like a champ, floating above the fray, riding smart, and tending to business.

As far as opening day was concerned, the joke was on anybody but Flores. The Santa Anita marketing department has tagged the 2007-08 meet as "The Year of the Jockey," only they didn't know Flores would be that jockey. He had six mounts on the opener, from which he coaxed four wins and a second, including a sweep of all three stakes on the card - the California Breeders' Champion Stakes (colt and gelding division), the Sir Beaufort Stakes, and the Malibu Stakes aboard the 11-1 Johnny Eves.

The day's purse total for the Flores rides amounted to about $330,000, enough to send him solidly into the No. 15 spot on the national standings, at nearly $10.4 million, as the season draws to a close. Opening day also served to shine a spotlight on Flores, underlining the fact that he is still an important piece of the West Coast jockey puzzle.

By now, Flores has ridden just about everywhere in the United States, as well as Europe, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Japan. With three Breeders' Cup wins and career purses approaching $125 million, he needs no introduction wherever he roams. In California, though, the pieces have been shuffled recently, and the players have changed dramatically. The trend does not escape a veteran like Flores, who turns 40 on Feb. 5.

"A lot of the older guys retired, and it got a little weak here for a while," said Flores, who earned his stripes when the Santa Anita room was home to Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens, and Eddie Delahoussaye in prime form. "But then the younger, new riders got to compete with us, and they learned how to ride California-style. It's completely different from anywhere else. It's speed. It's very tactical. You've got to follow the right riders, the right horses, and commit to what you're going to do. If you get lucky, you get lucky."

Flores took luck out of the equation with all three of his stakes wins on opening day. Bob Black Jack popped the gate and led all the way in the seven-furlong Cal Breeders. Monterey Jazz did the same at a mile on the grass in the Sir Beaufort. Johnny Eves broke like a greyhound, then was content to dog stakes winners Desert Code and E Z Warrior through a half in 44.04 seconds before taking command.

"I love to be near the lead, close to the pace - chase and chase," Flores said. "When I have a horse like that, I want to take advantage of it."

Likewise, Santa Anita is being smart in its marketing plan to use jockeys as a promotional tool. Yes, the business is gambling, and there are certainly plenty of products from which to choose (how about that new Super High Five?). But marketing VP Allen Gutterman has a number of promos and giveaways that will tap into the human athletes that at least put an accessible face on the sport.

Pincay enjoying retired life

One public ceremony that was not hatched by Gutterman's crack team was scheduled to take place Saturday, when a group of riders was set to gather in the winner's circle between races to present a check for $20,200 to the Winners Foundation, the organization that has served the racing community as a source of treatment, rehabilitation, and counseling for all manner of substance abuse.

The handsome sum was raised through private donations from upward of 15 individual jockeys, collected over the holidays. Among those participating in the presentation will be Laffit Pincay, who figured there was no better way to spend his 61st birthday than at the racetrack, on a good cause.

Pincay, newly single, has not ridden since March 2003, when he suffered neck and spine injuries in a fall at Santa Anita. He has been working on an autobiography and doing the occasional special appearance.

"For the first time, I am really enjoying my life," Pincay said. "When I was working, I never really had any fun. There were times I went out, but I had to pay for it the next day. I still work out, and I still watch what I eat. People say I'm obsessed, but it's just that I want to feel good. I worry about feeling good. That's the essence of life, and it's very important to me."