Viva La France

by Ed Meyer

posted on November 12, 2008 in General Discussion, News | No Comments >>

Three autumns ago, Julien Leparoux rode at Churchill Downs for the first time. He had one win from just 10 mounts during the meet, and fellow apprentice jockeys Randall Toups, Dane Kobiskie and Jordan Charkoudian each won more races.

Many people mispronounced Leparoux’s name, and even if the shy young man wanted to correct them, he spoke only minimal English. The next spring, Leparoux (and it’s LE-par-OO) captured the Churchill riding title while rolling to the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice.

The 25-year-old Frenchman again heads the Churchill jockey standings after the first 10 days, with a 24-19 win margin over spring titlist Robby Albarado. That puts him on pace to break Pat Day’s fall-meet record of 55 wins set during the 30-day session in 1985.

Leparoux has answered those who wondered what would happen once he lost his apprentice weight allowances — and when high-profile trainer Patrick Biancone wasn’t there to put him on a slew of stakes horses. (Biancone, a fellow Frenchman, was given a one-year suspension for having a banned substance in his barn.)

“A lot of talented people in this business don’t get those opportunities,” said meet-leading trainer Mike Maker, who began using Leparoux during his first winter riding at Turfway Park. “It’s what you make of it when you do have that opportunity, and Julien did. You can say, ‘Well, he was riding at Turfway in the wintertime for the best people when he started out.’ Then, when he took his success to Churchill and Keeneland, say, ‘Oh, well, that’s because he’s a bug rider.’ But he’s just a good jockey.”

In only three years, Leparoux has won two Breeders’ Cup races, including the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf last month aboard Forever Together, and this spring was runner-up in the Preakness (Macho Again) and third in the Belmont (Anak Nakal). He has eight Grade I victories and three riding titles apiece at Turfway, Keeneland and Churchill.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I started,” said Leparoux, who came to the United States in 2003 to work as a groom and exercise rider for Biancone. “My goal was if I could win 50 races, I’d be happy every year.”

Leparoux should be very happy after winning 862 races and almost $36 million in purses. His English has become so fluent, that his sense of humor and wit come through.

“I’ve always said it takes a rider five or six years to really come to themselves, to really get rolling,” said his agent, former jockey Steve Bass. “It’s very rare you see a jock in three years accomplish as much as Julien.”

He ranks No. 11 in the country at $10.6 million in purse earnings in a year that he started devoid of victories.

Leparoux and Bass headed to Santa Anita for the first time last winter, shortly after Biancone’s suspension. After winning two of only 29 races, they moved on to the Fair Grounds in mid-meet, before lackluster meets at Keeneland and Churchill.

Bass said the turning point was in the late summer at Saratoga, where Leparoux on the first weekend won the Grade I Diana and Grade II Jim Dandy.

“We really started to do good in the summer,” Leparoux said. “Before that (for) six, seven months … we didn’t struggle, but it was not like usual.”

“I was kind of expecting it, anyway. You leave a trainer who has 80 horses … you have a time you need to work on it.”

Trainer David Carroll, who teamed with Leparoux to win Saturday’s Mrs. Revere with Acoma, said Leparoux’s slump might have been “one of the best things to ever happen to him.”

“For the first time there was a bump in the road,” Carroll said. ” … It speaks volumes about him, that he endured that. But I think it might have helped him grow up a little bit as well. Toughen him up a little bit, that this business is not all rosy.”

Leparoux never fails to credit Biancone — for whom he won two Grade I races his first full year — for putting him on the map.

“Most of it is because of Patrick,” he said. “Who can find a trainer that in the first year will put you in Grade I races? We jumped all those years that all those (other) jockeys have to really, really push for it. We got lucky because Patrick trusted us and gave us a good opportunity.”

Carroll predicts there’s much more to come.

“We haven’t seen the best of him yet by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “But he’s cool and calm and has all the tools. He’s just going to get stronger.”