11/06/2014 2:48PM

Hovdey: Flores returns for journeyman's holiday

Benoit & Associates
David Flores scored with Shakin It Up in the Malibu before leaving Southern California to ride in Singapore.

There is no racetrack crowd like a Breeders’ Cup crowd. It is the only major gathering at which horsewise insiders outnumber the glitzy riffraff. Anyone with even modest connections can’t walk a dozen steps without confronting a face familiar at some point for either moving or shaking a key corner of the business.

So it was last Saturday at Santa Anita that a cowboy hat appeared nearing the top of a clubhouse escalator that rose to reveal David Romero Flores, international man of equitation. A trim, fit 46, Flores was sporting a stylish Van Dyke and Western threads while greeting well-wishers who recalled his work with top horses as far back as Marquetry and as recent as Turbulent Descent.

One question, though, needed answering: Why wasn’t he in Singapore? Or China? Or Korea? Or any of the other exotic locales where he had been plying his trade since January? The answer sounded jockey familiar.

“I got days, so I decided to come here, see some family, go to the Breeders’ Cup,” he said. “What else would I do?”

Flores is only the most recent rider of note to sell his services to a foreign racing capital. Just this week, Alan Garcia, a Belmont Stakes winner, announced he was taking a contract in Saudi Arabia. Kent Desormeaux was still in his 30s when he cashed in on his name for a series of lucrative stints in Japan, while Gary Stevens, whose feet always seem to itch, served overseas hitches in England, France, and Hong Kong.

Flores enjoyed a long and satisfying run in the U.S. with a career that had what can be best described as a split personality. On the one hand, he was the go-to stakes rider for any number of top stables and delivered, with three Hollywood Gold Cups, three Breeders’ Cups, a trio of Del Mar Futurities, and wins in the Kentucky Oaks, the Arlington Million, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Pacific Classic, in addition to rich Dubai raids to take the Godolphin Mile and the UAE Derby.

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Each September, though, Flores would put on his county-fair duds and dominate the wild and woolly bullring at Fairplex Park, where he won six titles and still ranks second only to the all-time runaway leader, Martin Pedroza.

Good things come to an end, though, and a downturn in business forced Flores, a native of Mexico, to market his skills beyond Southern California. Last year, he dipped his toe into the Singapore waters with a brief appearance, then went on to make a mark at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where he hooked up with the local Steve Asmussen barn. By the end of 2013, he was back in Los Angeles packing up his wife and young son for a six-month commitment to Singapore, but not before he left town on a high note by riding Shakin It Up to victory in Santa Anita’s opening-day Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26.

Now he was back after more than 10 months on the new job. Riding freelance, he has won 38 races with only weekend programs, good for seventh in the standings, for minimum purses of about $35,000. Flores was asked about any jockey culture shock.

“The system there is different,” he said. “The rules are more strict in the races. You have to be a lot more clear. I just got suspended over there for something I don’t think I would have been suspended for over here.

“But I respect that,” Flores went on. “The riders there all come from different styles – Australia, England, France, Hong Kong. Unless you are very strict with one set of local rules, it can be a problem.”

Flores finished sixth aboard Si Sage for California trainer Darrell Vienna last May in the $3 million Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji Race Course, but such an event is the exception to the rule. Singapore’s workaday racing stock does not measure up to places like Hong Kong, Australia, or the JRA circuit of Japan, and Flores has had to adjust accordingly.

“At first, I was putting everything on the lead,” he said. “I won some, but some of them just didn’t last, so I started to adjust to the slower pace they usually ran. And it made sense. The way they train there is different. It’s slower, easier in the mornings, not nearly as aggressive as we are here.

“A lot of that is because of the weather,” Flores went on. “It’s hot all the time. And they don’t use Lasix, so there’s a lot of things they have to do to protect horses from bleeding, because if they do, they have to be out for a couple of months.”

Singapore is a city-state island off the southern coast of Malaysia with 120 miles of coastline and a population of 5.3 million living in fewer than 300 square miles. Much of the city is vertical.

“We have a nice apartment, but the view is only of other buildings – there are so many,” Flores said. “Everything is right there within a half an hour. The souk, the parks, the marina.”

If Flores was homesick, he hid it well. But, of course, he will be back. They all come back.

“Maybe not right away,” he said. “My license is through the end of the year, and I’m hoping I get one for next year.”