Hovdey: Turbulent Descent, Flores veterans of bumpy rides

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Take a close look at the horse and her rider strolling postward on Friday as favorites for the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs. After what they’ve been through, the race ought to be a piece of cake.

Turbulent Descent displays very apparent scars on a knee and an ankle from a nightmare moment during her first plane flight, 18 months ago, from Orlando to Memphis. David Flores, on the other hand, sports fresh facial wounds suffered two Mondays back, when a car turned in front of his Yamaha 800 on a busy highway east of Santa Anita Park.

And they say horse racing is dangerous.

In each incident, the outcomes fell under the category of “lucky” or “could have been.” The filly needed diligent first aid and special care to close the tricky gash on her ankle (a homeopathic honey turned out to be the key ingredient), but by the fall of 2010 she was in glorious action, winning all three of her starts as 2-year-old. Only her name remains as a tribute to the memory of the fit she threw during that rocky airplane ride.

As for Flores, he is a three-time Breeders’ Cup winner whose long hold and quiet presence in the saddle has served him well in scores of other top events, including the Kentucky Oaks, the Santa Anita Handicap, and three runnings of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Flores is the only man to have ridden Turbulent Descent in competition, a career that now embraces 6 wins and 2 seconds in 8 starts. A victory in the Filly and Mare Sprint, in her first try against older runners, would assure her a championship as the nation’s top female sprinter and go a long way toward making a case as champion 3-year-old filly as well, since her 2011 record also includes a victory over the talented Zazu in the Santa Anita Oaks at 1 1/16 miles.

One would think such challenges would provide a rider thrill enough, precluding the need to strap on a different kind of helmet and hit the road. But jockeys being jockeys, going places quickly runs deeply in their veins.

“I told him, not long before his accident, it wasn’t him I was worried about,” said Mike Puype, who trains Turbulent Descent. “It was the other drivers out there. As far as I was concerned he could ride that bike off a cliff if he wanted to. Only wait until the day after the race.”

As a result, Flores got to walk around explaining a swollen, stitched lip and nasty, colorful bruises around his right eye. Bill Strauss, the man behind Pro Flowers who is partners with Blinkers On Racing Stable in the ownership of Turbulent Descent, was skeptical when he heard the story.

“How do you get in a motorcycle accident and only hurt your eye and your lip?” Strauss wondered aloud, relieved his jockey was still intact. “That’s a fight. Honeymoon over?”

A fight is exactly what any Breeders’ Cup event comes down to, and the Filly and Mare Sprint will be no different. Turbulent Descent, for all her accomplishments, must run the best race of her life to get the job done against a field that includes fellow Californians Switch, Tanda, and Irish Gypsy.

Turbulent Descent, light-bodied and gracefully athletic, was picture-perfect when former trainer and ace bloodstock advisor Greg Gilchrist bought her for $160,000 in Florida for Blinkers On, a San Francisco Bay Area syndicate managed by Scott Sherwood. Gilchrist, who trained Lost in the Fog and Soviet Problem, among others, pinned a rising star on Turbulent Descent a year ago, after she had just won a maiden race at Santa Anita. Puype saw no reason to disagree.

“She’s got the greatest mind in the world,” Puype said. “You can see it in the way she trains. In her races too, she’ll shut down at the wire, the second you stop asking her, like she’s saving herself for what‘s really important. I’ve had people come up to me worried she pulled up bad and I have to tell them, ‘No, that’s just her.’

“That’s why I can’t imagine her in a panic like what happened to her on that flight,” Puype added. “Sure, she was much younger, but even then, when she came to us she never showed fractious behavior.”

For a filly who emerged bleeding from her first plane ride, she has spent a lot of time since then in the air. Three earlier cross-country trips this year resulted in wins at Keeneland (in the Beaumont) and Saratoga (in the Test) and a second to It’s Tricky in the Acorn at Belmont Park.

“Believe me, it’s a real consideration,” Puype said. “I was dead afraid this year to put her in a box stall like that first one. So she only travels in those open stalls, just like a horse van, where they can see all their buddies. I can’t say she likes to fly, but if we give her a chance she knows how to deal with it how she feels.”

At 45, Puype (pronounced “pipe-ee”) is one of those horsemen who makes no bones about his passion for the job. Raised in Arizona, he was neither bred nor born to the racetrack, but once exposed it was the only place he wanted to be. He got a great break with a private job for noted owner and breeder Gary Biszantz, for whom he trained the noteworthy stakes winners Old Trieste, Cobra King, and Lord Grillo, and now Puype operates a thriving public stable.

“My father owns a business that provides and maintains computer systems for other business,” Puype said. “I could have inherited the throne, but it’s not me and never was me. I feel grateful and very blessed that I’ve got a job I truly love. I like winning a race for $10,000 just as much and anything.”

Let’s ask him that if he wins on Friday. In the meantime, Puype has been happy with the way Turbulent Descent handled her trip to Kentucky. And he knows that Flores will be buckling up all week long. As for Flores, newlywed at 43, he considers himself fortunate beyond words.

“No more,” Flores vowed. “I don’t even remember hitting the ground. The bike was totaled. That night my wife let the air out of the tires of my other bike and hid the keys. I know how lucky I was.