While his friends are spending their summer vacation at the beach or watching movies at the mall, 18-year-old high school senior Eswan Flores is preparing for "a dream come true" — becoming a thoroughbred jockey.
It is scheduled to happen Friday night at Hollywood Park in the eighth race, when he rides Aeromon in a seven-furlong maiden claiming race for 3-year-olds and up.
For months, Flores has engaged in a delicate balancing act, attending Fernando Ledesma High School in El Monte while riding in nearly 200 quarterhorse races and winning 21 times as the youngest jockey at Los Alamitos. Now he's ready to embark on an even bigger challenge, riding thoroughbreds as an apprentice jockey on one of the most competitive racing circuits in the nation.
"This is what I always wanted to do," Flores said. "I worked hard to be in this position, and if you want something in life, you have to work hard, and you'll get it."
Trainer Vladimir Cerin is stepping forward to give Flores his first mount at Hollywood Park.
"He's already won a bunch of races," Cerin said. "He should be good out of the gate and gets a good weight break" as an apprentice jockey. "He shows up on time and looks good on a horse, so I definitely want to give him a chance. I have a good feeling about this kid."
Jockey agent Derek Lawson said he recruited Flores to make the switch from quarterhorses to thoroughbreds after receiving strong recommendations from former jockeys who had seen him ride.
"What he's learned so far makes him perfect to take the next step," Lawson said.
Flores is a native of Mexico who started going to Santa Anita when he was 8 while his father, Carlos, worked as a groom. At 10, he would ride his bike to the Arcadia track, studying horses. Friends and family took him to ride at ranches.
At 5 feet 6 and 112 pounds, he's lean and athletic. He runs five miles a day to stay in shape and used to play soccer. He has been rising at 4:30 in the morning so often to exercise horses that he no longer needs an alarm clock to wake up. Flores said he had been telling his friends since middle school that he wanted to become a jockey.
"This is my passion," Flores said last week at Hollywood Park after working out two horses. "For me, this is like going to the beach, having fun, going to the movies."
He's made a promise to get his high school diploma, so he intends to return to Ledesma in September so he can graduate in December after finishing up four classes. He goes to school twice a week as part of an independent-study program.
There should be lots of trainers paying close attention to Flores, because if he shows ability, the weight allowance he receives as an apprentice will be an incentive to hire him. He'll be given an initial 10-pound allowance until he wins five races. Then the allowance drops to seven pounds until he reaches 45 wins. It then becomes five pounds until his one year of apprenticeship ends.
There's no certainty how Flores will do.
"You have to watch him ride, and you can't see him ride unless he's in a race," Cerin said.
Added Lawson: "He has to learn on the job. There's no guarantee an apprentice will go on to be a journeyman rider. He has to perform."
And his first race comes at night with a large field of 13 horses entered. "It's trial by fire," Lawson said.
Joe Talamo, 21, who won an Eclipse Award as an apprentice jockey in 2007, said the best advice he could give to Flores was to learn from older competitors.
"You want the experienced riders on your side," Talamo said. "A lot of the veterans helped me. You have to be a good listener. It's so tough on the California circuit because there's not a lot of horses to ride. I wish him luck."
Giving up summer beach time isn't easy for a teenager in Southern California, but Flores said, "I love this. This makes me happy."