08/16/2004 11:00PM

Torres begins new chapter with hope


When jockey Francisco Torres rode three races last Thursday at Louisiana Downs, the mounts were his first in North America since November 2000. His presence raised questions, and Torres is not dodging them.

Torres has spent the past four years riding under contract to Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He moved to Saudi Arabia not long after he was banned from Churchill Downs for refusing to take a breathalyzer test. At the time, Torres was having one of his best years, having won 115 races for earnings of $4 million. He even registered his richest career win in 2000, taking the Grade 2, $600,000 Turfway Spiral Stakes, now the Lane's End, on Globalize.

"As they say, you make your own bed," said Torres, who will turn 35 on Friday. "I just screwed up. I have nothing to hide."

Torres's banner season in 2000 was the culmination of a strong run that began when he completed rehab after a substance-abuse ruling issued when he was in his early 20's. He said he has been clean of drugs for the past 13 years.

In the late 1990's, his star rose fast.

Torres rode in the Kentucky Derby twice and set earnings records while winning riding titles at Turfway Park and Ellis. His earnings record of $1,636,380 at Turfway during the winter-spring meet of 1999 stood until this year, when Rafael Bejarano surpassed the mark with mount earnings of $2,008,233. Torres, who in North America has 1,839 wins and mount earnings of $32 million, also won major stakes at Keeneland and Churchill Downs in the late 1990's.

But things changed one fall afternoon at Churchill, when Torres was approached by track officials. He does not sugarcoat the proceedings that led to his ejection from the track.

"The night before I had been drinking, and they asked me to blow and I wouldn't because I knew I would blow positive," he said. "It was Churchill Downs's private property, and they asked me to leave. There was never a ruling against me. I never lost my license."

In general, tracks have the right to refuse entrance to any person, and Churchill continues to uphold the action it took with Torres.

"Nothing has changed here," said John Asher, spokesman for Churchill. "He is prohibited from riding at Churchill, and that carries over to any other Churchill Downs track. His status has not changed, and to my knowledge, he has not requested any change."

A formal ruling was never issued against Torres.

"It was not a commission matter," said Mickey Sample, state steward for the Kentucky Racing Authority.

Louisiana, which licensed Torres on Aug. 7, participates in licensing reciprocity with other states, and if Torres had a ruling or suspension against him from Kentucky, that would have been honored in Louisiana.

"There was no action taken by the stewards [in Kentucky], and that's the bottom line," said Charles Gardiner, executive director of the Louisiana Racing Commission. "Our application has a specific question whether the applicant has been ejected from another racetrack, and he checked 'yes.' That triggered an interview with the stewards. He divulged [everything] to the best of his ability [and] will be monitored regularly to see that he complies with all the laws and rules in the state of Louisiana."

Torres has also been licensed in Kentucky since his troubles there. He was last licensed there in 2001.

"At the end of [2000], when I got to Saudi Arabia, they had heard about [Churchill], and the Crown Prince flew me back to Kentucky just to get my license," said Torres.

Torres said the opportunity to ride overseas came about around the same time he came under fire at Churchill. He estimates he won about 500 races in Saudi Arabia before leaving that country three months ago and spending time in France, his native Mexico, and Kentucky.

"The reason I came back home was it got real serious with the war and such, and I have children," he said. "It was wonderful over there. I was blessed with the opportunity to ride there. I can't say enough good things about it."

Torres, who plans to ride at Fair Grounds in the fall, has been well received in Louisiana. He is named on four horses Thursday at Louisiana Downs, including contender Ice Forest in an overnight handicap that will go as the ninth at Louisiana Downs.

"He's a definite talent," said trainer Paul McGee, who teamed with Torres often in Kentucky prior to 2000. "He's just an all-around good rider. We had a lot of luck together."

Torres guided Bet on Sunshine, who is trained by McGee, to victories in such stakes as the Grade 3 Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland in 1997, the Grade 3 Aristides at Churchill in 2000, the 1999 Marfa at Turfway, and two runnings of the Don Bernhardt at Ellis.

"He's an excellent rider," said Keary Sibille, Torres's agent.

Sibille knows riding talent; he is the son of retired jockey Ray Sibille, a career winner of 4,264 races. Torres rode alongside Ray Sibille in Chicago in the 1990's, has respect for him, and is looking forward to a career he hopes will be just as long and prosperous.

That road has started anew in Louisiana.