02/09/2012 3:00PM

Santa Anita apprentice Flores enjoying his leap year

Shigeki Kikkawa
Through Sunday, apprentice jockey Eswan Flores was fourth in the Santa Anita standings with 16 wins.

ARCADIA, Calif. − Two days after he rode three consecutive winners, the fourth-ranked jockey at Santa Anita was in a much different competitive setting − staring down an Algebra II test at nearby Fernando Ledesma High School in El Monte, Calif.

Welcome to the life of Eswan Flores, apprentice jockey and soon-to-be high school graduate.

The son of a Santa Anita groom, Flores, 18, has been the surprise of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting, cracking the top five for the first time in his eight-month career in Thoroughbred racing. Through Sunday, he was tied for fourth with Joe Talamo with 16 wins, half as many as leader Joel Rosario.

“This is like a dream,” Flores said on a recent morning at Santa Anita. “I never thought I’d be in this position. It’s a tough group. I’m getting there.”

Flores has been in demand at Santa Anita, both in the mornings and afternoons. His first 16 wins at the meet came for 14 trainers, and he has scored doubles for Janet Armstrong and John Sadler. He won the 40th race of his career Feb. 3, reducing his apprentice claim from seven pounds to five pounds for each mount in an overnight race. His apprentice term lasts until Sept. 11.

“I think he’s an up-and-coming jockey,” said trainer Terry Knight, who has Flores work horses in the mornings. “I like the way he rides. He seems smart beyond his years for a kid that has been riding as long as he has.”

Flores took an unconventional path to Santa Anita. He began his riding career on Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos in Orange County in late 2010, a 17-year-old riding over the customary straightaway distances of 300 to 440 yards. He won 21 Quarter Horse races and had mounts in several major stakes at Los Alamitos through last spring.

Jockey’s agent Derek Lawson was among the first to notice Flores’s skills and urged him to make the transition to Thoroughbred racing. He made the switch last July at Hollywood Park, scoring his first win on his fourth mount.

Since then, Flores has endured the ups and downs of a young rider. After winning twice in the final month of the Hollywood spring-summer meeting last year, he went 1 for 74 at Del Mar. He bounced back at Fairplex last September, going 10 for 52, and after winning seven races at the Santa Anita autumn meeting and four at the Hollywood fall meeting, Flores said he was ready for his first Santa Anita winter-spring meeting.

“After Pomona, that’s when business started to pick up,” he said. “I started to improve. I was so used to Quarter Horses, my balance wasn’t so good. I’ve gotten more confidence in myself. You learn something all the time. Every day I think of things.”

Making the transition from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds required a few subtle adjustments for Flores. For example, after a hillside turf sprint on Feb. 2, he learned he was too quick to angle to the rail when horses start the long, sweeping left-handed turn before approaching the stretch.

“You have to check on the inside to make sure no one is there,” he said. “It’s like driving a car. The horse could clip heels.”

Flores said he typically works “six or seven” horses a day, though he tries to take off Tuesdays. Class work at Ledesma is on Mondays and Tuesdays, and he does his homework at other times. One of his recent projects for a history class was a study of American presidents.

Flores was a typical sophomore at Arroyo High School until the winter of 2009-10, when he began a home-school program that allowed him to spend more mornings at the track. High school is nearly behind him.

“I’ve got 10 more credits to go,” he said. “I’ll be done in two months.”

A career as a jockey was not what Flores’s father, Carlos, had envisioned for Eswan, his youngest son and the sixth of seven children. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, Carlos Flores, 51, works as a groom for Santa Anita-based trainer Victor Garcia.

There were many mornings in the early 2000’s when Eswan would get up before dawn with his father and go to the stable. While his dad worked, Eswan would hang around the barn, watching television in one of the dormitory rooms.
It was during those years that Flores started noticing the careers of jockeys, and envying them. He recalled being at Santa Anita on March 1, 2003, when Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. suffered a neck injury in a spill that ended his career. Eswan Flores was 9 years old.

“I saw Laffit fall off, but I didn’t know who he was,” Flores said. “I thought that looks tough, but that’s what I want to do.”

Carlos Flores said he had hoped Eswan would study veterinary medicine or become a doctor. But long before Eswan Flores began riding, Carlos knew that racing was one of his passions.

“He used to jump on the couch and act like he was riding,” Carlos Flores said through a translator.

“I’m very proud. He’s done it step-by-step.”

How far Eswan Flores’s career can progress depends on numerous factors such as racing luck and his size. Flores stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and said he tacks 110 pounds. Being that tall means a careful diet is vital.
Flores said jogging and watching the quality of his food helps.

“I don’t count the calories,” he said. “I eat all day, but little. No junk food.”

Of course, this is only the start of Flores’s career. After his apprenticeship expires in September, Flores will be just another rider in a tough jockeys’ room in which riders often compete in the nation’s top races.

Flores said he knows success can be fleeting, but days such as Jan. 29, when he scored three straight wins on favorites, can provide a boost. He has yet to ride in a Thoroughbred stakes but has been in consistent demand, riding 16 of the 34 races from Feb. 2-5. During that span, he had one winner and was unseated once in the stretch of a hillside turf sprint, quickly rising unharmed.

“It can get a little tough,” he said.

So can algebra, but for Flores those assignments will be done soon. Trying to stay among the leading riders in Southern California has only just begun.