By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Vasco Flores is living the American dream. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Vasco has created his own path in the world of international show jumping through hard work, determination and perseverance.
Since moving to the States in 2012, Vasco has been a farm hand, groom, training rider at home, show ring rider and Grand Prix competitor. Today, Vasco operates his own Highport Stables in Wellington, Florida, and Connecticut.
Coming from a small island, Vasco never dreamed he would live the lifestyle he has today. “When I came to the United States, it was shocking to see how big the sport was. I didn’t realize it was such a global sport,” Vasco said.
As a child, Vasco was exposed to horses at an early age. “I was really lucky because my dad was a horse fanatic. I was around horses in a casual way for years before finally sitting in the saddle,” he said.
Vasco began riding at 12 years old after friends in the industry suggested he try the sport. “I rode a few times with a neighbor and then kept bugging my parents asking them how I could ride more,” he said. “We found a local summer camp that had an English saddle, and they signed me up.”
After summer camp, Vasco found a riding school nearby to continue his education. “I was so excited to continue riding, but I was humbled fairly quickly when I learned each lesson was $75. That was a lot of money for my parents, with four kids,” Vasco said.
It was then Vasco began creating his own path to pursue his passion for horses. “The lady who ran the riding school said if I worked in the afternoons after my lessons, she would give me the opportunity to ride more,” he said. Vasco jumped at the chance to get more saddle time.
Back on the Path
Vasco took a break from horses during his teenage years to focus on other extracurricular activities. It was during this time Vasco represented Puerto Rico for the first time as a member of multiple Junior Olympic teams for volleyball and basketball.
Although he stepped away from horses for several years, his interested in the sport never wavered. “I knew that it was going to take money to be successful in the sport,” he said. “Since I didn’t have the funds to be at the top, I took a break. However, when I was 18 a couple of local pros gave me a helping hand and got me back into the saddle.”
Juan Benitez was instrumental in helping Vasco stay the path. “While in college, in between classes I would go ride horses for Juan, and he gave me an opportunity to show. Juan helped me feel out what a professional riding career could look like,” Vasco said.
It was this local connection that gave Vasco his big break in 2012, when he got an invitation to participate in a clinic at Centro Ecuestre de Puerto Rico with famed show jumping trainer Jimmy Doyle.
“The most outstanding rider of the clinic was invited to spend a few days at Georgina Bloomberg’s Gotham South in Wellington, Florida, where Jimmy trained. That was a monumental opportunity,” Vasco said.
On a borrowed horse, Vasco bested the others at the clinic and earned the invitation to travel to the States to broaden his horizons. “The opportunity to be with Jimmy and Georgina, those horses and the type of training they provided was so special. It was something I never thought existed,” Vasco said. “It got me thinking, How can I find my way back here?”
Puerto Rico to Palm Beach
After the clinic, Vasco and Jimmy kept in touch and before he knew it, Vasco was returning to the United States to work for Gotham Enterprises. “When I first started with Gotham, Jimmy didn’t really have a position for me. I was a body that was willing to do any and everything. Whatever he needed, I molded into that,” Vasco said.
The benefit of arriving without a defined position was that Vasco was able to learn how the operation ran from the ground up. “Starting in an entry-level position, I was able to understand every facet of the business,” he said. This knowledge would be extremely beneficial once Vasco opened Highport Stables, as he knows what it’s like to be the farm hand, groom and rider.
Once on board with Gotham, Jimmy quickly became Vasco’s mentor. Coming from a military background, Jimmy instilled the importance of discipline and work ethic to Vasco. “He taught me nothing happened by luck. The key to success was discipline and organization,” Vasco said. “I knew that was true, because if I wanted something I had to focus and organize to make it happen.”
Not only was Jimmy Vasco’s mentor, but he also became a valued friend. “The friendship was like a hand and a glove; it fit very well from the beginning,” Vasco said. “As we built trust, I got to work more with the horses, started work riding, got more involved with the training, eventually leading me to jump in most of the major Grand Prix in America.”
Under Jimmy’s tutelage, Vasco’s riding skills flourished. “When I left Puerto Rico, I was jumping a meter, very poorly. I never would have expected you could come here and get paid to do this if you do it well,” Vasco said. “I was never close to that in Puerto Rico. It all transformed here.”
In 2015, Vasco got his first opportunity to step into the competition ring in the United States with Gotham Enterprise’s 5-year-old homebred mare Nolita. Vasco had the opportunity to work with Nolita, one of the first offspring from Gotham’s breeding program, from day one.
A highlight from their time together was competing in the 5-year-old jumper championship at the Hampton Classic. “We didn’t win, but we were in the ribbons. It was really special because not only did it give validation to the Gotham breeding and training program, but it showed me and others this is something I can do,” Vasco said.
“Nolita was the horse that made it all start for me,” he summarized. Nolita would ultimately give Vasco the opportunity to show more horses for Gotham, thus providing the chance to compete at a higher level.
Balou 660 was another instrumental equine teacher for Vasco. Together they jumped numerous Grand Prix from night classes to Spruce Meadows. Balou and Vasco also partnered in 2018 to represent Puerto Rico at the Central American and Caribbean Games held in Colombia.
In 2019, Vasco made his lifelong dream a reality and opened his own Highport Stables. This time creating his own path was a little bittersweet, as he would have to leave Gotham, Georgina and Jimmy.
“Working at Georgina’s was one of the best jobs in the world. You can do anything there; you can ride, compete, but at the end of the day I was always tied to their goals and I knew before I was 30 I wanted to have my own business,” Vasco said. “It goes back to paving my own way. I always knew I wanted to have control over my future.”
Vasco took a lot of what he learned from Gotham to shape his business. “Georgina and Jimmy run one of the best barns in the country. Having learned their structure, it really set me up to start my business the right way,” he said. “I can implement the basic characteristics to succeed in this competitive business.”
There are three facets to the services Highport Stables provides. “Sales horses are the main focus, then I like to handpick junior and amateur owner clients to train, and finally I like to focus on my own Grand Prix mounts,” Vasco said.
Vasco’s favorite part of the day is working with the horses and helping create pathways to success for each one. “I feel like I relate to the horses, because some horses don’t have the opportunity to succeed right off the bat. I’m giving them the chance to succeed and show what they have,” he said. “More often than not, they deliver. I really cherish being a part of their paths.”
While in Puerto Rico, Vasco thought he had a big mindset; however, once he moved to the States, he realized his dreams in Puerto Rico were, in fact, quite small. “Coming here, I felt like no dream is too big to accomplish,” he said.
Through Highport, Vasco wants to help other Puerto Ricans dream bigger and give back to the horse community at home. “I knew the only way I could do that was to branch out and have my own business. Right now, I have a few owners from Puerto Rico and I recently had a horse from Puerto Rico join me in the States,” Vasco said.
It was local pros who proved instrumental in shaping Vasco’s life path when they encouraged him to get back in the saddle and keep pressing forward when he was 18. Vasco hopes he can be a Juan Benitez to the next generation. In fact, he’s already in the process of organizing clinics at home.
“There’s a lot of talent in Puerto Rico; they just need to be given the right path. I was very lucky to find my path and I’d like to help another kid find their path,” Vasco said.
Vasco may have already achieved his dream, but he isn’t decreasing his work ethic one bit. “I’d like to consider myself a student of the sport and want to continue learning from industry leaders to provide the best product to my clients while working hard and focusing on my goals,” he said.
Whether he’s helping others find their way in the sport or achieving his own dreams, Vasco’s proved with hard work there’s no limit to what he can do.
For more information, visit www.vascoflores.com/highport-stables
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com