What happens to a jockey when his career takes a turn for the worse? The turnaround can be as simple as an unlucky streak, or as complicated as a steward's ruling. How does a rider rebuild himself, and his brand, when he makes a mistake?
This month's edition of Lost and Found takes an in-depth look at that question in two separate cases. First, jockey Norberto Arroyo, a very talented apprentice, tries to make his way back to the top of the sport from a cocaine addiction that once landed him in a prison cell.
In the second case is David Flores, a jockey who took a chance to ride in Singapore and faced a controversial ruling which threatened his career. Now, he is ardently pursuing a more in-depth knowledge of the industry to provide himself and his family with a retirement plan.
Norberto Arroyo: 'This is my time now'
In the year 2000, it seemed jockey Norberto Arroyo couldn't lose. He swept up leading rider titles as an apprentice at New York's top racetracks, winning multiple graded stakes races. He boasted 192 victories from 1,211 starts, with nearly $7 million in earnings. Though he lost out on the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey to Tyler Baze, Arroyo still remembers that year as the high point of his career.
Nine rather mercurial years later, Arroyo was arrested near Saratoga with 12 grams of cocaine in his possession. Released from prison in March of 2011, Arroyo spent a year working in a shoe store, anxious to make his way back to the racetrack.
Kentucky granted Arroyo a conditional license in October of 2012, and he responded by capturing the leading rider title at Turfway Park. He also notched his 1,000-career win milestone that winter. Arroyo stayed on the Kentucky circuit for the entire year, per the conditions of his license, and then ventured down to Oaklawn Park for the winter meet beginning in January of 2014.
Though he passed every drug test administered to him, Arroyo did earn several short riding suspensions over the course of finishing as the meet's second leading rider. With one week left at Oaklawn, he heard a rumor that the state of Kentucky was looking for an excuse to pull his license. A married man with four children to feed, Arroyo got spooked. He decided to head down to ride in New Mexico, where he was already licensed, rather than risk a license denial in Kentucky which might prevent him from riding anywhere.
In 2015, Arroyo fractured his pelvis in a Sunland Park spill in late March. He returned home to Kentucky to recuperate with his family, but the house they lived in burned to the ground with all their possessions inside shortly thereafter. Weeks later, he and his wife separated.
“I lost everything,” Arroyo said. “I lost my career, my home, my family.”
Arroyo refused to give up. As soon as he was able, he returned to galloping horses in at a training center in LaGrange, Ky. Now, he's back in New Mexico, riding races at Sunray Park, Ruidoso Downs, and Albuquerque, with a short-term goal of returning to ride races in Kentucky.
“People that don't know me, they judge me by what they read,” he said. “They judge me by the trouble I've been in, and they think I'm a horrible person. And it hurts.
“But they've never seen what they're going to see now, trust me. I'm 100 percent committed to my career, and I'm going to get back on top.”
The force that drives Arroyo today, keeping him on the straight and narrow, is a newly restored faith in God.
“I gave myself to the Lord,” he said. “It's very difficult to explain, it's very personal. He lives in me. This is such a beautiful experience that I'm going through right now. That's my support.”
At 38 years old, Arroyo is still working every day to piece together his career. He hopes to stand before the Kentucky licensing committee this summer, and one day return to his New York home.
“Regardless,” Arroyo said, “this is my time now.”
David Flores: 'I had no idea'
Jockey David Flores, 48, has seen a great amount of success on the racetrack, with over 3,500 wins to his name and multiple riding titles across the state of California. He owns three Breeders' Cup victories and his career earnings are well over $150 million.
In December of 2013, Flores left the United States to ride in Singapore under what was originally a six-month contract. He ended up riding there regularly through early 2015, when the Singapore stewards assigned him a one-year ban for an alleged failure to “take all reasonable and permissible measures to obtain the best possible placing” in a February 22 race.
When Flores returned to California, the Singapore stewards requested that the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) demonstrate reciprocity for the one-year ban. Though the CHRB ultimately decided in May to overturn a ban they called “draconian” in nature, Flores had already been enraptured by a different sector of the Thoroughbred industry: the bloodstock industry.
A friend had asked Flores if he'd be able to breeze a few 2-year-olds at the Barretts Del Mar sale, and Flores readily agreed.
“I'd been riding for over 30 years, and I had no idea that this is where a lot of babies come from,” he said. “That kind of got into me. I was like, 'This is fun.' It's pretty interesting.”
Kim Lloyd, general manager of Barretts, made a connection for Flores with Becky Thomas of Sequel Bloodstock in Ocala. Thomas, who takes on interns each year, wasn't easily convinced that Flores would fit the position.
“No, absolutely no jockeys,” Thomas told Lloyd when he called. “They are very talented in what they do, but what we do is a lot different. It's a lot of work.”
When she spoke to Flores, he was eventually able to convince her to give him a shot. When Thomas met the jockey for the first time at Keeneland in September, Flores wore western boots and a cowboy hat to the first day of the sale. After a couple days, he'd transitioned to tennis shoes and a ball cap, and Thomas remembers him absorbing every bit of information she'd throw at him like a sponge.
“He is absolutely one of the most phenomenal people I've ever been around,” Thomas says now. “He's incredibly gifted, incredibly kind, incredibly hard-working, and just such a brilliant person.”
Flores loaded his family into the RV he'd stayed in for the duration of the Keeneland sale and joined Thomas in Ocala to learn the intricacies of preparing a yearling for the 2-year-old sales. He galloped a bit, ponied a bit, learned about wrapping legs and giving medications, and truly developed his horsemanship skills from the ground up.
Thomas recalled a specific day when Flores particularly impressed her. He had trouble teaching a filly he'd worked with to pick up her leads properly. Thomas took him aside and put one of her more experienced hands on the filly while she and Flores watched. When the other rider was able to convince the filly to change leads after just one trip around the track, Flores surprised her by standing up, taking off his hat and bowing to the other rider.
“That's what kind of a guy that guy is,” Thomas said. “Here's a world-class rider, multiple Grade 1-winning jock, and he's taking his hat off to my boy.”
Now that the 2-year-old sales in Ocala are over for the year, Flores has taken a job with Wesley Ward in Lexington to continue his education about young horses. One day, he'd like to be a trainer or a pinhooker, he says, but his riding career may not be over just yet. Flores plans to ride a few races for Ward while he's in town.
“I'm just going to try to learn whatever he has for me to learn,” Flores said. “It's a privilege to be around great people, great trainers, great human beings. They love the racing, they love the job with passion, and that's what I like about the industry. There's a lot of great people.
“You can only ride for so long. I'm 48 and healthy. I could probably keep riding another five years if I wanted to, but I like the idea of working on the ground with the babies. I hope I can continue to do that.”
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