Ransom Notes: In Memory of Jose Flores

Today I was writing an opinion piece about the Breeders’ Cup and how I think the event has changed — and not necessarily all for the better — when my Twitter feed showed the notification from Jim Dunleavy of the Daily Racing Form that, this morning, jockey Jose Flores had succumbed to the catastrophic injuries he suffered in a spill at Parx on Monday.

Jim-Dunleavy

I didn’t know Flores aside from his name and reputation as a leading rider in Pennsylvania, but my reaction was overwhelming sadness. Instantly, my bitching about the Breeders’ Cup felt so trivial and my thoughts about the Breeders’ Cup, instead, centered on the fact that Flores never rode in the event and never would, despite giving his entire career — and ultimately his life — to the sport of horse racing.

I’m not a person who openly criticizes jockeys, either publicly or in private. Sure I’ve said to myself or to friends that perhaps a certain rider made a poor choice or that maybe one didn’t turn in the best ride, but you won’t ever see me on social media — or anywhere else for that matter — criticizing, critiquing, bashing or blaming one for a horse’s poor finish, regardless of the circumstances.

I will never be a jockey. From the time I was 12 and 5’9” it was pretty clear my riding days wouldn’t be on the back of a speeding racehorse, not that it was ever my ambition. It’s just something I never have and will never do, so harshly criticizing one, either on the internet or in person as I see so many people do daily, seems an uneducated thing to do. And mean. Very mean.

A long time ago, I was married to a jockey, one who dreamed of riding at the elite level someday, but who was never fortunate enough to make it there, despite hard work and dedication. Long since divorced, he is still my friend and someone whose happiness is important to me. And as much of a happy front as he puts forward, I always sense the sadness of his never hitting the big time. He also suffered a pretty horrific injury when we were together, in addition to a few broken bones. The full set of dental implants he carries around in his mouth every day are also a constant reminder that being a jockey wasn’t what he’d hoped it would be, though he doesn’t regret a single day of trying.

Jose Flores (photo via WPVI TV).

Jose Flores (photo via WPVI TV).

Jose Flores never made the big time either, as he mostly carved out a decent living riding horses who were no longer competitive on the large circuits or ones never destined for the large circuits. But he rode them to the best of his ability all the same and, like my ex-husband, by all accounts, he loved what he did.

I grew up lucky to know the daughter of a Hall of Fame jockey who I am still friends with to this day. Fifteen years ago, I watched mostly silently as her father and her family struggled with the end of a brilliant career after a lifetime of mostly extreme highs, but also brutal lows. A broken neck — and the possibility that, should he ride again and endure another spill, he would risk permanent damage and paralysis —took his choice to retire on his own terms right out of the talented hands he was known for having on the back of a racehorse. He was 56 years old on the last day he rode — one year younger than Jose Flores was today as he took his final breath.

I’ve been lucky to call several jockeys friends throughout my life in horseracing, some I still talk to and some not as often as I’d like. But it’s always nice to catch up a little with them when they’re in town or when I’m travelling. Some are Eclipse Award winners or, now, Hall of Famers who spoke little English 20-plus years ago when they arrived from Venezuela and other countries with little more than a dream and some talent. One friend I saw throw caution to the wind and bungee jump from a hot air balloon two decades ago only to suffer a career ending spinal cord injury years later, now dependent on his family for almost all of his care. His son is still an active rider and I often wonder if he holds his own breath when he watches him ride, praying he doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Some say jockeys choose to be jockeys and put their own lives in danger of their own accord and the truth is that’s absolutely right. But to say that and not understand how much more is involved also minimizes their contribution and necessity in racing. Last I checked horses didn’t run around the tracks alone. The dedication to making weight and the courage to ride a speeding animal at 30-plus miles per hour doesn’t deserved to be minimalized by the “choice” argument.

And the stark reality is only a small percentage of jockeys makes up the big earners and big winners, as most barely make ends meet living out of suitcases and cars going from second-tier track to second-tier track. Most aren’t the Mike Smiths or Gary Stevens or Javier Castellanos or even one of the talented Ortiz brother. Most — at every level — just hope to pick up a win or two each week and make it back to weigh-in after each race unscathed. I don’t know a racing fan who hasn’t seen a horrific spill resulting in severe injury to a rider, regardless of what level and what track.

So, maybe, just for a little while, instead of criticizing a jockey we can thank one. Or show them kindness even after a horse we’ve bet on has lost. Say something nice. Maybe just for a little while we can all acknowledge that they do put their lives on the line for our enjoyment and entertainment every day. Maybe we can acknowledge that losing some money on a horse they ride is less important than their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Maybe, just today, in memory of Jose Flores.

***

Ransom Notes: Where Have All the Stars Gone?

Originally posted by Margaret Ransom on February 27, 2018

Unique Bella (photo by Jim Safford).

Unique Bella (photo by Jim Safford).

Question: Does anyone miss Gun Runner? What about Arrogate, Songbird, or even California Chrome? Has anyone really recovered from the retirement of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah after his record-setting sophomore year? Honestly, has anyone else noticed that, right now, in this game we all love, we are suffering from a significant void of equine stars?

The good news is that’s the bad news. The best thing about the game being without any stars is that there are now several spots atop the ladder in just about every division waiting to be claimed — and a plethora of talented runners lining up to do just that.

After the Breeders’ Cup every year it’s always fun to anticipate the new year returns of our favorites, map out the Road to the Kentucky Derby, enjoy the exciting summer racing from coast to coast and, eventually, the Breeders’ Cup once again. Because, well, they’re our horses too, right?

It’s been said the Triple Crown trail these days gets underway in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and it could be fair to say the path to the Breeders’ Cup never ends. Part of the fun is playing armchair trainer and deciding where we’d run, if they were our horses.

So, with the Gun Runners and Arrogates and California Chromes and Songbirds carefully tucked away at various farms in Kentucky, second careers well underway, who do we have left and what can we expect?

I think it’s safe to say the biggest star still running is a mare — a good mare, a champion mare, but a mare nonetheless. Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner hasn’t won a race since and hasn’t started since beating just three rivals in the Travers Stakes nearly six months ago. And the top two juveniles from last year have yet to start as 3-year-olds, while perhaps the most promising one of the entire bunch we’ve seen just once.

Who are the top runners for fans to follow now and who can we expect to rise to the top?

Forever Unbridled

Last year’s champion older female and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (GI) heroine has been tucked away at Fair Grounds prepping for her big date against boys in the March 24 Dubai World Cup at Meydan. No filly or mare has started in the Dubai World Cup since Royal Delta in 2012 and 2013 and no female has finished better than To The Victory’s second in 2001.

The Charles Fipke homebred has been working well for Dallas Stewart at Fair Grounds all month and will have a few more workouts before shipping to the Middle East. She’s got a big fan following and, while it may be hard to get too excited when she’s yet to make a start this year, the concept of her entire year is something to look forward to.

Unique Bella

This 4-year-old daughter of Tapit, who was last year’s champion female sprinter, has had a nice beginning to the year. She won the La Brea Stakes handily on Santa Anita’s opening day then came back to romp in the Santa Maria a couple weeks ago and has been working well enough for local clockers to give her the coveted “breezing” tag in the mornings.

Though honored as a sprinter, she’s bred for routing, has won around two turns and will probably be pointed toward a lot of the same races as Songbird was last year before she retired. After the Santa Margarita on March 17, she would likely travel for the Ogden Phipps, Delaware Handicap and Personal Ensign. Regardless, The Don Alberto Stable-owned daughter of Tapit and Unrivaled Bell (Unbridled’s Song) is with a trainer in Jerry Hollendorfer who isn’t afraid to take risks.

Justify

The $500,000 colt from the next-to-last crop of Scat Daddy, who died prematurely at age 11 in late 2015 as one of the most promising stallions we’ve seen in a long time, broke his maiden in a romp at first asking nearly two weeks ago, living up to the quiet buzz he’d generated training.

Yes, the “Curse of Apollo” is always at the forefront regarding potential Kentucky Derby horses that didn’t start at two, but who is going to doubt the Hall of Famer who trained the most recent Triple Crown winner (Bob Baffert)? Justify is beautiful, moves like liquid and, though so inexperienced, looks and acts like a pro every day. He has a good mind to go along with a good pedigree, and we’ll probably see him in a stakes next, where he’ll either rise to the challenge or wait for the bigger races for 3-year-olds later in the year.

Bolt D’Oro

He spent much of the second half of 2017 as the division’s standout until that very rough and very wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup cost him not only the race, but also the division championship, despite a pair of Grade 1 wins, which is a head-scratcher.

His owner/trainer Mick Ruis had hoped to bring him back earlier this year after a winter freshening, but a pulled muscle curtailed plans and he’s only been back working for a month. A rider kerfuffle with Corey Nakatani produced a switch to Hall of Famer Javier Castellano and the pair are expected to return to action in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes. The best thing about this colt is that he’s been training at Santa Anita during a live meet with a lot of cameras and live workouts on XBTV.

Good Magic

This $1 million Curlin colt used racing’s biggest stage to break his maiden, taking the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over a very good field by more than four lengths. His connections, eFive Racing and Stonestreet Stables, collected the Eclipse Award a week after he returned to the work tab after a little winter break, but he’s been mostly training for Chad Brown with no fanfare and not much attention at Palm Meadows Training Center in South Florida.

He’s set to be the headliner this weekend in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and his return to action could not come at a better time.

Accelerate

Beat the declining Arrogate last summer and, after a bumpy Breeders’ Cup, came back to win the San Pasqual. He may be California’s best shot at the Big ‘Cap in two weeks.

Giant Expectations

Sprinter-turned-router won the San Antonio Stakes in early January, then tanked in the Pegasus World Cup. Hard to say whether he’ll sprint or route for Pete Eurton, but he’s kind of a fun horse to follow and seems to rise to most challenges thrown his way.

McKinzie

Undefeated in three starts, this son of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, named for a late beloved Calfornia racing executive, hasn’t made a wrong move, winning the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Sham Stakes. He’s been training exceptionally well for Bob Baffert and is likely to face Bolt D’Oro and some others in the San Felipe.

Solomini

The most successful maiden winner in a while, he was runner-up to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup then was disqualified from a win in the Los Alamitos Futurity in favor of Stablemate McKinzie. He’s been back on the work tab all month and trainer Baffert has said he could sent this talented son of Curlin just about anywhere.

Dream Tree

The standout and undefeated sophomore filly has three stakes wins, including a Grade 1 and a Grade 2. Another from the powerful Baffert brigade, she’s set for the Santa Ysabel next week after a nice work this weekend. Her owners, Phoenix Thoroughbreds, paid a lot of money for her ($750,000), which she’s probably already made up in value as a broodmare when this career is over.

Potential star honorable mention (in no particular order):

Audible – Impressive Holy Bull winner likes the Florida winter.
World Approval – Champion turfer back in Calfornia for a second run at Eclipse glory.
Kanthaka – Impressive San Vicente Stakes winner.
My Boy Jack – Southwest Stakes winner.
Mourinho – Smarty Jones Stakes winner who is better than his last.
Instilled Regard – LeComte Stakes winner, who is also better than his last.
Bravazo – Purists will love that D. Wayne Lukas trains this one.
Snapper Sinclair – Ran too good to lose in the Risen Star.
West Coast – Second in the Pegasus makes him the male to beat in the Dubai World Cup.
Lombo – Humble horse wins Robert B. Lewis, trains like a boss every day.
Gunnevera – Fan fave still giving it his best.
Collected – Recent bad performance earned this Pacific Classic hero a break.
Free Drop Billy – Grade 1-winning Holy Bull Stakes runner-up.

Who are your potential stars?

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.