Whenever I am with someone who is at the race track for the first time, we watch a few races and wander around a bit. Then, we go to the rail to watch a race so the newcomer can see and feel the speed and power of a 1,000-pound thoroughbred. After the last horse passes, I say “look to your left.” An ambulance, which has been trailing the field from the start, is coming. It is the perfect symbol for just how dangerous racing can be for the tiny humans who ride the horses. In what other sport does an ambulance trail the participants?
The ambulance was there for Jose Flores on Monday afternoon at Parx Racing, but there was nothing anybody could do after the Parx Hall of Fame jockey suffered massive cranial and spinal injuries when his mount in the ninth race, Love Rules, fell while on the lead and Flores was thrown to the ground. Another horse fell over Love Rules, who had to be euthanized. Flores was taken to Aria Jefferson Torresdale Hospital, where he was placed on life support until he died Thursday at 12:42 p.m.
Flores leaves behind wife Joanne McDaid, a former jockey herself, their 7-year-old son Julian, two older sons from previous relationships, Juan and Jose Jr., and a lifetime of memories for the race trackers who knew him and the fans who bet on him because they always knew they would get an honest effort from the 57-year-old native of Peru. They were rewarded 4,650 times.
Flores did not need to ride anymore. He had made enough money, but he just thrived on the competition. He wanted to ride horses — whether it was in morning training or in afternoon races. He simply loved it.
Fellow rider Kendrick Carmouche, who made his name at Parx and now rides in New York, loved Flores. When Carmouche first came to Parx, he shared an agent with Flores, Parx legend Jack Servis.
Just a week before the fatal race, Carmouche, who often comes down to Parx to ride on Mondays and Tuesdays, was in the hot box (which riders use to sweat off pounds) next to his friend in the jockeys’ room.
“And he said, ‘you know Kendrick, I found a good wife, I just hope I don’t get hurt,’ ” Carmouche remembered. “Man, it crushed me. He took care of his kids. He loved Joanne. It’s just so sad that we lost a guy like that.”
Carmouche rode Mr. Brix in that ninth race. Horse and rider were just behind the accident.
“The way Jose went down, I knew it was bad,” Carmouche said.
It was, in fact, as bad as it gets. Nobody remembers another jockey being killed in a race at Parx or its previous incarnations, Philadelphia Park and Keystone. But Flores was the 157th jockey killed during a race in North America since 1940, according to statistics compiled by the Jockeys’ Guild. Dozens of riders have been paralyzed, including Ron Turcotte, who rode the great Secretariat to the Triple Crown in 1973. It can be a most thrilling sport, but nobody in it is unaware of the dangers.
According to Carmouche, Flores was trying to reach the magical jockeys’ mark of 5,000. His longtime agent, Dave Yanuzzi, is certain Flores would have already been there had he not missed 3 1/2 of the last 10 years with injuries.
In his best year, 1998, Flores won 380 races. He won 346 in 1996 and 328 in 1997.
“Jose rode them the same way whether they were 3-1 or 35-1,” Yanuzzi said.
In fact, the agent told a story about Flores that will resonate with anybody who knew him. One day in the paddock, an owner suggested Jose might want to be something worse than third, the owner apparently hoping to cash a bet on the horse the next time when the horse’s form would not equal his ability.
“I can’t do that,” Flores told him.
He was, Yanuzzi said, “never mean to a horse.”
“Give these guys the credit they deserve,” Yanuzzi said of all the jockeys. “They go out every day and play Russian Roulette.”
Scott Lake, the all-time leading trainer at Parx, has known Flores since 1991. They won 1,203 races together. Lake had a horse in that ninth race and was on his way to the track when he had to detour to pick up his daughter at school. He watched it on television.
Just like Carmouche, he sort of knew. The word at the track for when a jockey falls is dainty — a spill. The reality, once in a great while, can be so much more, so final so as Yanuzzi perfectly put it, “heartbreaking.”