01/08/2007 12:00AM

Flores quietly racking up stakes


ARCADIA, Calif. - David Flores, who is only 38, was having trouble with his short-term memory. Try as he might, he couldn't recall the last time he lost a stakes race.

This is understandable. At the time, he was sitting in his Santa Anita cubicle at the end of business late Sunday afternoon, fresh from winning both the San Miguel Stakes on E Z Warrior and the San Gorgonio Handicap with Citronnade. The day before, in his only stakes mount, he won the San Pasqual Handicap aboard Dixie Meister. And then there was the big win the weekend before, when King's Drama and Flores teamed to take the San Gabriel Handicap on New Year's Eve.

As it turns out, Flores somehow managed to lose the Monrovia Handicap on Jan. 1 aboard a 37-1 shot named Costume Designer. Still, a flashy cluster of stakes in the face of competition from the likes of Garrett Gomez, Alex Solis, Victor Espinoza, and Corey Nakatani is good shooting no matter what the setting. His secret?

"Get on a good horse, then take advantage of it," he replied.

In fact, it should be no surprise that Flores is on this kind of roll. After all, he has been winning major races for 16 solid years, for trainers like Bobby Frankel, Bob Baffert, Richard Mandella, and Julio Canani, not to mention a number of lucrative wins for Godolphin. The Flores trophy case displays the evidence of victories in three Breeders' Cups, the Arlington Million, the Kentucky Oaks, the Alabama, the UAE Derby, two Hollywood Gold Cups, a Pacific Classic, and a Santa Anita Handicap.

This is a very loud record for a very quiet man. Do not look for Flores to shout his stats from the rooftops. The father of four daughters, modest to a fault, Flores seems to glide through life the same way he rides a Thoroughbred, applying soft hands and a gentle touch where others might grunt and strain.

One of those hands took a beating about two years ago, when Flores fractured and dislocated his left elbow in a three-horse spill at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 26, 2005. Today there is only a dark scar where the surgeon entered the joint. But in the wake of the repair, the arm would not straighten completely, and damage to ligaments and nerves caused temporary grief to the first three fingers of his left hand.

"There was pain and then they were numb," Flores said, rubbing those same long fingers, now healthy again. "I was very worried about it. But I did a lot of physical therapy on the arm, and it slowly got better. It took about a year after it happened, but it was straight again, and all the pain was gone."

When it happened, Flores was coming off one of the best years of a career that began in 1984, at Agua Caliente in Tijuana, his home town. At the 2004 Breeders' Cup in Texas, Flores added a victory in the Mile aboard Singletary to earlier wins in the 2001 Juvenile Fillies and 2003 Juvenile. He took other major 2004 events aboard the likes of Pico Central, Lundy's Liability, Amorama, Ten Most Wanted, and Silent Sighs, and at the time of the injury, he was just weeks away from commencing a two-month contract stint in purse-rich Japan.

Jockeys in the Flores class will tell you there is never a good time to get hurt, but this one was more expensive than most. And in this age of interchangeable stars, even a veteran like Flores will find that his hold on "loyal" business can be tenuous at best.

When he returned to riding two months later, things were slow. Flores took a deep breath, considered his options, and headed for Kentucky.

"I always wanted to go somewhere, just to experience something else," he said. "I've ridden in California all my life, and good business always would keep me here. Riding in Kentucky a couple months was a different atmosphere. I met new people. It helped clear my head."

Flores had a steady though unspectacular 2006. He took a pair of rich features on Sunshine Millions Day and won the Vanity, the Californian, and the Juvenile at Hollywood. Flores also swept into his old realm at Fairplex Park - where he reigned for six straight years - to win four of the stakes in a handful of appearances.

"I love that place," Flores said of the five-eighths bullring. "There's just something about going fast into that first turn, or sitting at the back, waiting for everybody else to blow the last turn, then going through on the rail."

As for the recent Flores stakes winners, they all could lead somewhere sweet. Lightly raced Citronnade and veteran King's Drama give the rider a coveted toehold in Bobby Frankel's turf division. E Z Warrior might be the best of the Bob Baffert 3-year-olds. And Julio Canani has big Dubai plans for Dixie Meister, pointing for either the Godolphin Mile or the $6 million World Cup itself. Such prospects should be enough to get any 22-year veteran hopping out of bed, but if Flores ever requires a boost, he need only look at the pictures of his four girls, ages 8 to 19, adorning his cubicle walls.

"I've got many kids, so I've got to keep working," he said with a grin. "I'll be here for another 15 years."