On March 19, trainer Uriah St. Lewis was in the tack room in his barn at Parx Racing watching the track’s feature race of the day on television as he waited to lead over a horse for the finale, when he saw the accident that killed 56-year-old jockey Jose Flores.
Flores was St. Lewis’s go-to rider. Two days earlier, he had guided St. Lewis’s best horse, Discreet Lover, to a third-place finish in a stakes race at Laurel Park, and he had been aboard the horse in 20 other races. Flores also was scheduled to ride the horse St. Lewis was about to lead over for the March 19 finale.
Since that tragic day at the track located outside of Philadelphia, Discreet Lover has lifted his owner-trainer to new heights. The very next month, he provided St. Lewis with his first-ever graded stakes victory, capturing the Grade 3 Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct.
In August, he finished third in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga at odds of 38.75-1, and that was just a tease for the upset that followed on Sept. 29 when he surged late to prevail by a neck at 45.50-1 in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
St. Lewis, an affable native of Trinidad, has been wearing an especially broad smile for the last four weeks in preparing Discreet Lover for his next assignment in Saturday’s $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
In the glow of a career highlight, St. Lewis can talk about Discreet Lover all day —how durable he is (44 career races), the even greater odds he has bucked as the son of a $1,000 sire and in costing St. Lewis just $10,000 at auction as a 2-year-old, and what his emergence has meant for a horseman who got his start at Fairmount Park in Missouri and Blue Ribbon Downs in Oklahoma in the late 1980s.
Yet St. Lewis tends to bring the conversation back to Flores, who won 4,650 races, and most of them as a mainstay at Parx since 1999, the year he achieved his lone graded stakes triumph on Loaded Gun in the Grade 3 Philadelphia Park Breeders’ Cup Handicap. He never competed in a Triple Crown event or the Breeders’ Cup.
“I have been blessed to be where I am with this horse, and I think Jose has been helping us along since we lost him in March,” St. Lewis said. “I rode him as much I could. Every morning he would be at the track and come by. He was a quiet guy but a very nice guy and is somebody you miss. He always followed instructions and gave good feedback. He was a good gate jockey, too. He deserves credit for helping to develop this horse the last couple years.”
Flores also had a hand in the development of TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint favorite Imperial Hint, whom he rode twice at the end of 2016, including a breakthrough, six-length allowance win at Parx. Imperial Hint was off to the races from there, winning of eight of his next 10 starts, but none further with Flores in the saddle.
“He was a consummate professional, very dependable and was well-respected, even though he missed out on that big horse,” said Dave Yannuzzi, Flores’s agent for 15 years. “Watching what Discreet Lover has gone on to do this year has been bittersweet. We lost Jose, but at the same time Uriah and his family are wonderful people and you know how much this horse means to them. In this business, you hear people say, ‘How good could that horse be if he was with a big-name trainer?’ But how much better could someone else really do? He was a $10,000 2-year-old and no matter what, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and they have done a remarkable job with him.”
St. Lewis had never been to Churchill Downs before this week but he has seen it on television many times, watching the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup from tack rooms and grandstands far, far away. He cannot help but reflect on the road he has taken and the opportunity he has that many others, like Jose Flores, will never receive.
“I know I started at the bottom and I thank God that I did because I learned a lot,” St. Lewis said. “The Breeders’ Cup was in the back of everyone’s mind there, just like the Kentucky Derby. Everyone wants to win the Breeders’ Cup, everyone wants to win the Kentucky Derby. Sometimes you work your whole life and never get there. This horse has taken me a lot of places already. Winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup and going to the Breeders’ Cup, I just feel very blessed.”