hen Vasco Flores visits Puerto Rico later this year to teach a clinic, it will bring him full circle. After all, it was a clinic in the show jumper’s home country that forever changed the course of his life seven years ago.
Before meeting respected Irish trainer Jimmy Doyle, who ventured to the smallest island of the Greater Antilles to instruct a group of riders at Centro Equestre de Puerto Rico in 2012, Vasco had never jumped above 1.20m. Fast forward a few years, with a strong string of horses and a dedicated team supporting him, Vasco recently worked alongside Jimmy at Georgina Bloomberg’s Gotham Enterprizes in Wellington, Florida, and North Salem, New York.
Vasco’s introduction to the top level of show jumping came uniquely by chance, but the hardworking 29-year-old has learned to seize opportunity with both hands. “Back home, it was really basic. I had help from local professionals, and more than anything, they encouraged me to stick with it,” Vasco says.
“Anybody can tell you, [show jumping] is a sport that you obviously need the means to do it and the hard work behind it, but I really believed in the idea that it could pay off when I moved to the States. I was extremely lucky getting to deal with Jimmy and Georgina. They really took on a task in wanting to let me progress while I was working there, and that [was] amazing.”
Vasco is from the city of Guaynabo, just south of Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan. The youngest of four, he grew up in a household devoid of equestrian influence — and in a country that, at just 106 miles long by 37 miles wide — didn’t have room for an abundance of horses. Thoroughbred racing dominated the culture, producing the likes of Hall of Fame jockeys Angel Cordero Jr. and John Velazquez at Hipódromo Camarero. Beyond the racing oval, the breed of choice is the Puerto Rican Paso Fino, with competitions held on the island for the breed since the mid-1800s — a century before the horses were introduced to the U.S.
On the other hand, show jumping has not been quite as popular. Puerto Rico has not been represented in the discipline at the Olympics in over 15 years; Mark Watring competed as an individual at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. Eventing had Lauren Billys as their sole representative at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but she was also an individual. Neither Lauren nor Mark advanced to the finals of their respective disciplines.
“As you can imagine, it’s a small island, [so it’s a] small sport,” Vasco says, “but I was very intrigued when I was a kid with anything that had to do with horses. I remember when I was a kid, Rodrigo Pessoa was the ultimate rock star. I knew that there was a big superstar level [outside of Puerto Rico], but I didn’t know enough about it. I think I had naiveté in me. I wanted to try to pursue whatever that was.”
Vasco got his first taste of riding when a neighbor suggested he take lessons from an “English saddle rider” that lived nearby. That led to a stint at summer camp at Centro Equestre de Puerto Rico. Vasco admits he struggled with his introductory instruction. “All the beginning steps, [like] the posting trot, were hard. Slowly, I got the hang of it.”
He eventually was pulled toward other sports and contested the Puerto Rico Junior Olympics in both volleyball and basketball, but he found his way back to the saddle thanks to Diego Segurola — to this day one of Vasco’s closest friends, though he no longer rides — and Juan Benitez, whom Vasco credits as having a particularly impactful influence on his career. While Vasco attended college at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón, Juan offered Vasco some extra money to help out at his farm.
“Juan Benitez played a very, very important part in my decision to pursue the sport,” Vasco says. “He definitely encouraged me since I was young to just believe and trust and give myself an opportunity. I owe a lot to him.”
Then, Vasco met Jimmy, and the Irishman immediately recognized potential. Following the clinic, the two kept in touch, and in 2014, a job opportunity arose.
“Through meeting him, I just got more intrigued with the sport and top level of show jumping globally,” Vasco says. “For a couple of years, he was on me to kind of take the plunge. One thing led to another, and I decided to move and pursue the sport, and I moved to Wellington.”
‘A tornado of emotions’
With a move stateside, Vasco’s riding environment changed drastically, as he left the small sport in Puerto Rico for the “Winter Equestrian Capital of the World” and the elite training facility assembled at Georgina’s Gotham South operation. The stalls were filled with exquisite five-star equine athletes (and a pot-bellied pig named Wilbur); the town had more show jumpers than his entire home country; and chatting with Olympic gold medalists was commonplace. Vasco worked his way up within the Gotham Enterprizes operation while also receiving instruction from Jimmy. On top of his full workdays, he attended night classes at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, earning his MBA with a concentration in finance.
“It was a tornado of emotions,” Vasco recalls. “So many things were happening so quickly. I was never exposed to such a big level and such important horses. Getting up every day and getting to learn from the pure basics to the most complex approach toward the training of horses was an amazing experience. Today, I feel very lucky that Jimmy shared all his knowledge with me, and I saw all the effort and training that Georgina puts to get maximum results.
“Jimmy is a very competitive guy. He told me, ‘If you’re willing to work, the sport can take you anywhere,’” Vasco adds. “I was really lucky to understand what that meant when he told me when I started. I grabbed the opportunity with both hands and gave it my all.”
Vasco started working as a groom and farm hand before bigger opportunities in the saddle came his way. A Gotham Enterprizes homebred named Nolita gave him his first chance to show off his skills. The duo rose through the five-, six-, and seven-year-old divisions before the mare was sold, and their positive results led to more rides on more accomplished and advanced mounts. Chief among them was Balou 660. In 2017, Vasco jumped his first 1.60m class aboard the bay gelding, and the pair earned a top five finish in the $50,000 CSI4* Devon Welcome Stake at the Devon Horse Show. Balou was also Vasco’s mount at the Central American and Caribbean Games, where they produced Puerto Rico’s best result.
“Balou did and does a lot for me,” Vasco says. “He showed me the ropes at the bigger level. I have to appreciate all the things he did and does for me. Right now, he’s at the top of the list [of horses I’ve ridden].”
From Student to Teacher
Vasco’s role has evolved drastically since his arrival in the U.S. Up until recently, he developed Gotham Enterprizes’ young and new mounts and was the first to compete the talented Australian-bred stallion, Tulara Colmine, after the horse was imported from Europe at the end of last year.
Through traveling to some of the world’s most highly regarded shows both stateside and abroad, Vasco has formed many strong business relationships with fellow professionals. Those relationships have led him to additional consulting and training opportunities, helping the likes of U25 rider, Megan McDermott.
In just five years, Vasco has come farther in the sport than many riders can hope to in their lifetimes. Now, he’s eager to pay it forward, particularly in his home country, whose horse population was greatly affected by the devastating Category 5 Hurricane Maria that hit in September 2017. He’s planning to teach his own clinic and share his experiences in Puerto Rico by the end of the year.
“I want to be that guy that can go back and help the kids that are in the same shoes [as I was],” Vasco says. “That’s something I have vividly in my vision for the future. I want to find ways to give back, not in the typical way, but in being able to explain to people what steps they can take to achieve whatever goals they want. Even though Puerto Rico is small, there are a lot of great people and a lot of talent that could make it all the way.”
Vasco identifies his own goals as continued learning and self-progression, and he’s training daily with big goals in mind.
“You hear it a lot, but you have to be a student of the sport, and you have to enjoy learning every day,” he says. “I want to put myself in the position where I can keep learning and keep observing riders at the top level, so I can put myself in a similar situation where I can do that in the near future.
“I just think it’s a bright future. If you’re willing to take on all the obstacles for a big reward at the end, usually a lot of good things come out of it.”
Photography by Shannon Brinkman for NoelleFloyd.com.