Amid tragedy, longshot gives fans reason to cheer

Surviving a tragic accident that cost the live of their trainer, groom Rafael Hernandez and Winning Fans will line up in the gate in Sunday's Louisiana Derby.

Updated: March 7, 2003, 10:29 AM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

In a sport where pessimists rule and crusty, old men creep around OTB parlors looking for winning tickets thrown in the trash pile, there comes a time when you just have to root for something good. His name, appropriately enough, is Winning Fans. Sunday's Louisiana Derby (6-7 p.m. on ESPN) won't erase the tragedy of Feb. 25 for the family of Ramon Flores. The 34-year-old trainer was killed when his truck slid off the icy roads of Schulenberg, Texas. Flores and groom Rafael Hernandez were hauling three horses on a trailer that fateful morning, heading west from Houston to Sunland Park near El Paso. Flores leaves behind his wife, Amy, an 8-year-old son, Fernando, and a newly turned one-year-old daughter, Brisenia. Hernandez and the horses were dealt a far more favorable fate than their boss. They will all race another day. Among those horses whose lucky stars were crossed that morning was a promising three-year-old named Winning Fans. Just 12 days later, Winning Fans will line up in the starting gate in New Orleans. A longshot? No doubt. Winning Fans faces the nation's current #1 and #2 ranked Kentucky Derby prospects, Kafwain and Badge Of Silver, in Sunday's $750,000 race. But Winning Fans is used to bucking the odds. He was a hopeless 108-to-1 longshot in the Lecomte Stakes in his last start January 25. He outran his expectations and odds to finish third, less than four lengths behind the winner. In deep stretch, he made a closing move and looked like he may even pull off the impossible and win the important Kentucky Derby prep race. But that's chicken feed compared to his moral victory on the morning of Feb. 25. Winning Fans walked off that twisted van the same way he walked on. Through it all, he suffered only minor abrasions. After a few days in a nearby veterinary clinic, he was vanned back to his regular stall at Sam Houston Race Park last Thursday. That Sunday he met his new trainer, 54-year-old Eleuterio Martinez, Jr. "Considering all that he's been through, he looks pretty decent," said Martinez, known by everyone around Texas racing circles simply as Junior. "He had only a few skin-deep cuts  one on his forehead and one on his left hind cannonbone. He really was lucky& a little body sore at first, but he bounced back so well." Cuadra Valedor owns Winning Fans. In Spanish, Cuadra Valedor loosely translates "stable of a great, loyal friend". That moniker no doubt has been put to the test. Mexico City attorney Gonzalo Fernandez owns the stable, which has just three horses racing in America and several more south of the border. For years, Fernandez employed Junior Martinez as his trainer. But as Martinez desired to spend more time at his San Diego, Texas horse ranch, he and Fernandez decided to part ways. Who, then, would train the Cuadra Valedor runners? "I knew Ramon as a friend," Martinez reflected this week. "I knew Ramon was a hard-working trainer. Both Gonzalo and I decided that when I backed off training, we'd go with Ramon because he was such a good man and hard worker." Ramon Flores ranked in the top five of the Sam Houston Race Park trainer's standings. His hands-on approach drew the admiration of peers. At just 34 years old, he was a pup in this game of Thoroughbred training. So much more remained. Most trainers don't gain fame until much later in life. Bob Baffert, after all, was 43 when he made his first Kentucky Derby run in 1996. D. Wayne Lukas was 44 in his 1980 Derby unveiling. But Winning Fans gave the youthful Flores his first "big horse", that pie-in-the-sky that every trainer who ever mucked a stall chases. Maybe Winning Fans will never rank as a leading Kentucky Derby contender, but doggone it, he's dancing the dances and spring is near. Dream, and dream big. Tragically, Flores now won't be able to make that journey with Winning Fans in person. Amy Flores asked that ESPN viewers and race fans remember her late husband for his role in developing the colt. In the aftermath of the accident, Winning Fans' owner called upon his old partner, Junior Martinez, to literally take the reins for their fallen friend. Martinez answered the call. "I thought it was right to honor him as a friend and come back," he humbly stated. So now Martinez leads Winning Fans to New Orleans' Fair Grounds for a date with the nation's best Kentucky Derby hopefuls. The star-crossed colt will be reunited with his regular rider, Houston-based John Jacinto. The 26-year-old youngster will be hard-pressed to hold back his tears when he gets back aboard Winning Fans. Jacinto, who hails from Lima, Peru, has been in America for just over three years. After a short time riding in Florida, he migrated to Texas and has hooked onto a solid career. He won more races at Sam Houston than any other rider in 2002. He now leads that jockey colony in purse earnings for the current season. Jacinto's success can largely be attributed to the late Flores, whom the rider deemed a father figure and from whom he took his cues. Last Saturday, Jacinto spoke at Flores' funeral and later that evening honored his riding assignments. Fittingly, he won the featured Willowbrook Stakes that night, and in the winner's circle delivered an emotional message. "I want to dedicate this win to my 'daddy'," Jacinto said. "He wanted the best for me. I know that he is watching me and I want him to know that I appreciate everything he has done for me." There won't be a dry eye in the place if Jacinto and Winning Fans can pull off a fairytale win in the Louisiana Derby. Crazier things have happened. Racing gods have shone on far less-deserving folks over the years. After all, Ramon Flores was beginning to gather a reputation for training longshot winners. In a recent interview at Sam Houston Race Park, he was asked why his horses were so overlooked. He replied, "Maybe people just don't believe in me." Win or lose, Winning Fans will give all of us something to believe in on Sunday. Pessimists and Optimists alike. Even those crusty, old guys at the OTB.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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