Leparoux Emerges from Pack with Last-Second Derby Contender

Story originally published on April 15, 2013, on DanonymousRacing.com

Julien Leparoux could’ve sulked and no one would’ve blamed him. In a year filled with ups and downs for the 29-year-old jockey, the low point might’ve been last month after the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.

Leparoux, riding Kentucky Derby hopeful, Flashback, found himself in a taxing speed duel with eventual Santa Anita Derby winner, Goldencents. While Goldencents faded to finish fourth in the San Felipe, Flashback battled gamely but was nailed at the wire by Hear The Ghost.

As if the loss wasn’t frustrating enough, Leparoux would find out after the race that he was going to be removed as Flashback’s rider altogether.

“We had just won a graded stakes with him (the G2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes in February) and then we finish second and get taken off the horse,” Leparoux said, in an interview with DanonymousRacing.com.

“It was disappointing.”

But Leparoux didn’t point any fingers. He didn’t complain and he told us he holds no grudges.

“No, not at all… It’s part of the game,” said Leparoux. “You’ve got to move on. You cannot think about it too much.”

Rather than dwell on an opportunity lost, Leparoux decided to make the most of another opportunity when he was asked to ride Java’s War in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last Saturday.

“I was very grateful,” said Leparoux.

By the time Java’s War crossed the finish line in the Blue Grass Stakes, the horse’s owner, Charles Fipke, and trainer, Kenny McPeek, would also have something to be grateful for.

The ride was a testament to Leparoux’s style: patient and calculated. Behind by more than a dozen lengths early in the race, Java’s War remained the last of 14 horses past the 3/4 pole.

Leparoux didn’t panic, instead he guided his horse to the outside (seven wide at one point) and began picking off horses one by one. This time, it was Leparoux’s horse that would nail another horse, Palace Malice, at the wire.

Winning the Blue Grass was extra sweet for Leparoux. It was one of the few accomplishments that had eluded the Eclipse Award winning jockey, who has captured multiple riding titles at Turfway Park, Churchill Downs and Keeneland.

“It’s a race I always wanted to win,” Leparoux said. “So, to be the first one and get in the derby, it’s definitely a special race.”

Leparoux heads to Louisville with bitter memories from the 2012 Kentucky Derby, which launched the roller-coaster that has been his past year.

In that race, Leparoux finished a disappointing seventh aboard favorite, Union Rags. Trainer, Michael Matz, was initially critical of Leparoux for not keeping Union Rags closer to the early pace. But Leparoux encountered the sort of trip trouble that several horses run into year after year in consistently large derby fields.

“It was just bad luck,” Leparoux told us.

Not only did the horse not break well, Union Rags was also squeezed and steadied several times. Leparoux urged his horse on and passed a few horses late but was still more than a half-dozen lengths behind at the end.

In the days that followed, Leparoux lost the mount on Union Rags, who then went on to win the Belmont Stakes under John Velasquez.

“Last year is last year,” Leparoux told us. “This year we’re going to get there and my horse, that’s how he likes to run (from off the pace). Hopefully, my horse is going to be there for me when I need him and he’s going to run a great race.”

Resiliency and optimism would seem to be essential traits for any good jockey. Not only has Leparoux bounced back repeatedly in his short racing career, he has also experienced growth in his personal life that puts racing in perspective.

Last December, Leparoux married Shea Mitchell, daughter of Southern California based trainer, Mike Mitchell. It was one of several high-points in this year of highs and lows.

Thankfully for Leparoux, he finds himself riding high once again with Java’s War. If he doesn’t win the derby? As they say in Leparoux’s native France, “c’est la vie.”

One thing is for sure, no matter what happens, Leparoux won’t be seen hanging his head.

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