08/02/2017 1:50PM

Hovdey: A few ‘what-ifs' kept Flores from Hall

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David Flores has hung up his tack after a career that began at Agua Caliente in 1984.

On Friday morning in Saratoga Springs, for the first time in nearly 60 years, three riders of contemporary vintage will be welcomed at the same ceremony into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Racing.

This is a big deal. Rules of election have changed often through the years, and there have been occasions when multiple riders were inducted. But not since Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, and John Longden made up the Hall of Fame class of 1958 has there been a group like Javier Castellano, Victor Espinoza, and the late Garrett Gomez admitted to the sport’s most cherished shrine.

They will be joined by three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova and the steeplechase icons Good Night Shirt and the late Tom Voss as new Hall of Famers. Still, the festivities will have a definite feel of a tribute to the profession of the Thoroughbred jockey.

Espinoza’s place in history was secured by riding 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome. Castellano has become the premier money rider of his generation, more Arcaro than Shoemaker, and oblivious to pressure. As for Gomez, whose death last December by drugs still haunts, he was a four-time national earnings leader and the only jockey who figured out how to beat Zenyatta.

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Quite by chance, another rider of genuine quality slipped quietly into retirement this week. There should have been a parade, but that’s not the way David Flores rolled.

At 49, Flores has conceded in the battle against time and drops the reins on a career that began in 1984 with a bang at Agua Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, near his hometown of Rosarito Beach. Flores looks great and feels great, and he wants to keep it that way as he enters the next chapter of his life in Florida, raising and prepping young sales horses under the tutelage of bloodstock dynamo Becky Thomas.

“You have to be honest with yourself,” Flores said last week. “Losing six or seven pounds to ride is not the same as it used to be. When you are young, you can do anything, and you don’t think it will ever be any other way. Then you find out.”

True enough. But I’d take David Flores at five pounds over in a high-stakes race any day of the week. Young riders would come along and wish they could emulate his cool, collected style. They envied his low, sculpted profile, his precision in the face of chaos. In the room, he was known as “Vato,” which loosely translates as the “dude,” a real guys’ guy, and that he truly was.

It was Flores who rode Miserden to win the $300,000 Cabrillo Handicap at Del Mar in 1990 – the race that clinched the Juddmonte job for Bobby Frankel – then rode Juddmonte’s Marquetry to a 27-1 surprise in the Hollywood Gold Cup the following summer.

It was Flores who became the first jock to sweep the Pacific Classic, Del Mar Debutante, and Del Mar Futurity during the summer of 1999, when he won the seaside title riding against Laffit Pincay, Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Alex Solis, Chris Antley, and Espinoza, all of them either in the Hall of Fame or on the way.

Flores won a Breeders’ Cup Mile with Singletary at 17-1, a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Action This Day at 27-1, and a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with Tempera at 11-1. He won the Kentucky Oaks for Frankel, the American Oaks for Dermot Weld, and versions of the Del Mar Oaks for Bob Baffert and Julio Canani.

Stir in three runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup, a Santa Anita Handicap, an Arlington Million, and both the UAE Derby and Godolphin Mile on the same evening in Dubai, and it’s easy to see why trainers far and wide had Vato’s agent on speed dial.

Espinoza, four years younger than Flores, will be the first native-born Mexican to enter the Hall of Fame, an achievement that should resonate throughout the racing sphere. And yet if time had stopped at the end of the 2013 season, it would have been a toss-up as to which son of Mexico would have gotten there first, if at all.

At that point, both Espinoza and Flores had found their stellar careers in the doldrums. Then Mike Smith turned down the chance to ride the 2-year-old California Chrome in late December 2013, and during the summer of 2014, American Pharoah came open in the Del Mar Futurity. Espinoza and agent Brian Beach answered the bell for both. Cue history, and a place in the Hall of Fame.

Flores reaches the end of his career with 3,608 winners and earnings of nearly $154 million by his 25,578 mounts. For him, the final seasons played out not in an Espinoza fairy tale but in a manner more familiar to veteran riders whose place was usurped by fresh, young blood. Flores refused to be discouraged though and spread his wings to ride in all manner of exotic locales, including Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, England, Sweden, Turkey, and Singapore, where he was handed a suspiciously punitive suspension that was wisely disregarded by California’s racing commission.

More importantly, Flores will be remembered as the quiet man who gracefully guided the likes of Silver Charm, Free House, Turbulent Descent, Siphon, Awesome Gem, Tout Charmant, Special Ring, Citronnade, and Street Boss to major stakes wins that helped define their careers.

He will always be the jock wrapped deep inside plastic sweats on every racing day, jogging relentlessly around the main track in an effort to banish crucial pounds.

He will be the David Flores who rode Zenyatta to her first three victories, then honored a commitment to ride a 3-year-old in California rather than jump ship to follow the emerging filly superstar to Oaklawn Park for the 2008 Apple Blossom, where Smith took over for good.

Sticking with Zenyatta might have been the ticket to the Hall of Fame for Flores. But he is there in spirit, if not in fact, for he is also the David Flores who has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Tijuana’s Ciudad de los Ninos (City of the Children), turning a run-down orphanage into a safe haven for girls and boys forced into the streets. Flores treasures the time he has been able to spend there hanging out, playing soccer with the kids.

“To them, I was just another guy,” Flores said.

That’s Flores, El Vato to the end, who lingered more than three hours after his only mount on the 2010 Breeders’ Cup card at Churchill Downs to be found standing on the pipe railings of a trackside box seat, his trademark black Stetson visible high above the throng, as Zenyatta went postward for the 20th and final time in the Classic against Garrett Gomez and Blame. Asked what compelled him to fight the crowd and stick around, Flores pointed toward the big mare prancing out on the track and replied:

“I had to be here for my girl.”