03/06/2012 3:36PM

Santa Anita: Flores has pack of live mounts

Benoit & Associates
Eswan Flores comes back a winner aboard Tones in the Baffle Stakes, the rider's first stakes victory.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Much has changed this winter at Santa Anita for an 18-year-old kid who has been riding Thoroughbreds less than one year.

Eswan Flores was virtually anonymous when Santa Anita opened in late December. The apprentice jockey was coming off a 4-for-73 meet at Hollywood Park, had never won a stake, nor ridden in a Grade 1.

When winter began, Flores did not even have his high school diploma.

What Flores did possess was an upbeat personality and innate ability. “Horses run for him,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “That’s an intangible that you can’t put your finger on.”

While O’Neill has been one of Flores’ biggest supporters, the list of backers is growing fast. Flores rides contenders in seven of eight races Thursday at Santa Anita, including O’Neill-trained River Kiss in race 3, a $60,000 allowance sprint for statebred fillies.

O’Neill and Flores are 7 for 17 this meet, as Flores emerged from unproven bug boy to one of the circuit’s top jockeys. He entered the week with 32 wins from 194 mounts, third in the standings behind journeymen Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano.

Joe Griffin books mounts for Flores; it is Griffin’s job to maintain momentum. “Of course it makes my job easier,” Griffin said Tuesday, on a morning Flores took off. “Any time the trainers want the jockey, it makes an agent’s job easier.”

Griffin’s phone rang often before entries for the Thursday card, on which Flores ended up with three favorites and every mount listed at 4-1 or less. Favorites are Fluxx, race 1; Goux Would Do, race 2; and Flashy Rae, race 4.

Flores has won three races on a single card three times, and it would be appropriate if he topped that with at least four Thursday. After all, this has been a season of firsts. Flores, who celebrates his 19th birthday March 28, earned his high school diploma last week.

On the track, the likable apprentice scored the first stakes win of his career Feb. 26 riding Tones in the Baffle Stakes, a downhill turf sprint. And on March 3, he rode in a Grade 1 for the first time, finishing eighth on Thirtyfirststreet in the Santa Anita Handicap. Both horses are trained by O’Neill.

“He takes chances,” O’Neill said, referring to his cut-the-corner style. “But when he does, it is very controlled and very safe. He’s not the kind of bug boy that puts his head in the mane and sends. He’s a very mature rider.”

A critic might question Flores’ positioning of Thirtyfirststreet in the Big Cap. He brushed against the rail and steadied while trying to squeeze inside Ultimate Eagle at the top of the stretch. It was a rare miscue. Most of the time, Flores is in the right spot.

Horses generally break well from the gate for Flores, whose fast-start ability is partly the result of his experience riding quarter horses at Los Alamitos before moving to the major leagues last summer. The first Thoroughbred winner Flores rode was July 4 at Hollywood on Kelly Leak, whom he rallied from behind in a ground-saving trip.

Beyond gate ability and rail-skimming rides, Flores is skilled at switching sticks and has an unusually keen proficiency on turf. Six of 32 wins this meet have been on grass.

Furthermore, Flores reportedly has a respectful ear to veteran riders that offer advice. Flores will ride with a five-pound apprentice allowance through September 11.

Meanwhile, bettors hoping to cash a ticket Thursday on Santa Anita races will find Flores on live mounts all day. “With Eswan right now, you always feel like you have a chance,” said O’Neill.