For a jockey who has never ridden in the Belmont Stakes, and for a horse that has never won a stakes race, David Flores and Atswhatimtalknbout figure to receive ample mutuel support in their bid to prevent Funny Cide from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner.
Funny Cide has a shot at being the first Triple Crown champ since Affirmed in 1978, when the 134th edition of the final jewel unfolds at Belmont Park on June 7.
Bet with confidence suggests the 35-year-old Flores, who rode the son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy to a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, two lengths behind the winner. Funny Cide then went on to capture the Preakness by an electrifying 93/4 lengths.
"His father (A.P. Indy) won the race, so this horse can get the distance, and the longer the better for him," Flores said of Atswhatimtalknbout. "Not only that, but my horse improved a lot in the Derby with the addition of blinkers. It was the best race he ever ran and it will really help him in the Belmont."
Trainer Ron Ellis passed the Preakness to point for the Belmont. The additional time between races will benefit Atswhatimtalknbout, according to Flores. "Plus, the pace won’t be as fast as it was in the Derby, because it’s a mile and a half. Atswhatimtalknbout should be just close enough to the pace to make his closing run, and he has a strong turn of foot."
Flores, who has become one of the senior members of the jockeys’ room with the recent retirements of Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye and Laffit Pincay Jr., is not concerned about riding in his first Belmont Stakes, even though the distance is uncommon in American racing.
"I’ve ridden in races over two miles," Flores said. "There are more races at a mile and a half on the grass, but they have a different pace and horses have a big turn of foot on the grass. Going that distance on the dirt, I don’t want to be too far out of it. I want to be in a good stalking position."
Atswhatimtalknbout, owned by Public Storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes and Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Gary Ross and Frank Marshall, has never finished worse than fourth in six career starts, but has only a maiden victory and an allowance win, to go with a second in the San Felipe Stakes, and fourths in the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.
"We can’t worry about the Kentucky Derby anymore," Flores said. "We have to focus on the Belmont Stakes and that’s it. He’s capable of winning the race."
HOMESTRETCH: Expected to join Atswhatimtalknbout among the small but select newcomers scheduled to face Funny Cide in the Belmont are Empire Maker and Dynever. Make Funny Cide even-money to win the Belmont, with Empire Maker 2-1, Dynever 3-1 and Atswhatimtalknbout 8-1.
. . . California’s workers’ compensation ordeal is far from over. The high cost of insurance premiums already has forced some horsemen to leave the state, and others are considering a boycott of the entry box. According to a report from the May meeting of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, "initial premiums with insurance carrier AIG (American Insurance Group) expire June 30, and the industry is close to an agreement with AIG on rates for the 2003-04 premium year. TOC president John Van de Kamp emphasized that this issue continues to be the most important one to California horsemen, noting major trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas have left the state, citing high workers’ compensation rates as one of the reasons."
The report adds that the new program "is designed to keep rates as low as possible in the face of an insurance crisis that is negatively affecting every business in California." That might not be good enough. "It will get worse until the race tracks decide to help us," said trainer Caesar Dominguez, quarter horse Trainer of the Year in 1989 and a thoroughbred trainer for 15 years, who presently has about 15 employees. "The tracks are pretending not to recognize the problem, and the trainers have to realize we have to do something about it, because we just can’t afford these premiums," Dominguez said. "Why can’t the tracks take a certain percentage out of the purses to pay them? That way we could become self-insured. That’s what needs to happen, but I don’t know if there’s any chance of it, unless trainers organize and don’t enter their horses. Then it will happen."
Dominguez, 53, said premiums are due to increase as much as 10 percent in July. "Right now, I’m paying $48.50 per $100 on each employee’s payroll earnings. If you think that’s bad, I was paying $58 three months ago. Even though the rate has gone down, it’s still tough. Trainers have to bond together. The tracks in California say it’s impossible to take money from purses to pay the premiums, but it’s not. Tracks in other states, like Texas and New Mexico, take one percent or two percent from the kitty to pay premiums. It’s the money of the owners, trainers and jockeys anyway, so why not use it so we can become self-employed?" Insurance provider State Fund is expected to charge upwards of $60 per $100 of payroll beginning July 1, according to the TOC report, while the AIG program is expected to have base rates in the mid-$30s range.
. . . Flores said the absence of Hall of Famers McCarron, Delahoussaye and Pincay from the jocks’ room surprisingly has not sent shock waves through the riding colony. "The last few years, Eddie and Chris weren’t riding all that much anyway, not as much as Laffit," Flores pointed out. "Eddie was picking his spots pretty much and Chris was pointing to big races, although they both stayed in good shape. All three were very professional and we learned a lot from them. It was a privilege for all of us to have them here and to have ridden with them. We miss them, because they were the leaders in the jocks’ room. I don’t know who’s going to take over, but we all have to stick together and maintain the respect and the legacy they left."
. . . Pincay, who announced his retirement on April 29 due to injuries suffered in a March 1 spill at Santa Anita, was in a halo caste for some two months to help heal fractures in his neck, but had that cumbersome device removed recently. He presently is wearing a standard neck brace. "I expect to have this off in about three weeks," he told me. "I’m comfortable in it, but I’m going to wait until it’s off before taking a vacation. Then I’ll decide what I’m going to do."
. . . The sixth annual David Flores Golf Tournament will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 19, at La Costa Resort and Spa. Proceeds from the event help abandoned children in Flores’ native Tijuana. For information to participate, call Jim Loya at 626 825-6562.