Julien Leparoux and Union Rags had an easy time in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Julien Leparoux and Union Rags had an easy time in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Coglianese Photos/Courtney Stafford

Leparoux and 'Rags' a Strong Union

Julien Leparoux has put the Fla Derby behind him and is looking ahead with Union Rag

Thirty five years ago, a French-born jockey rode into history by winning the Triple Crown aboard Seattle Slew, trained by a former fox hunter and steeplechase rider.

Jean Cruguet gained immortality in American racing at a time when it was unheard of for a prominent French jockey to move his tack to the United States. Cruguet would achieve legendary status by riding the first ever undefeated Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew was trained by Billy Turner, who, more than three decades later, sadly trains in relative obscurity, despite being the only living Triple Crown-winning trainer.


Can history repeat itself in 2012? After all, we have another French-born rider, Julien Leparoux, attempting to land the first leg of the Triple Crown aboard Union Rags , trained by a former show jumping rider, Michael Matz, who like Turner established his roots riding in Pennsylvania and Maryland.


When Leparoux was born in Senise, Oise, in 1983, Seattle Slew was just beginning to build a dynasty in the breeding shed with his son, champion Slew o’ Gold. Leparoux, who began riding show jumpers himself at age 11, turned his attention to Thoroughbreds at age 18, working as a stable hand at Chantilly. He decided to move to California in 2003 to learn the English language and to work as an exercise rider for Patrick Biancone. A son of a former jockey turned assistant trainer, Leparoux began riding in 2005, and after six months he knew he never wanted to go back to France. The following year he was the leading rider in America with 403 wins.


This year, he got a big break when Union Rags’ regular rider, Javier Castellano, decided to jump ship and ride Algorithms  for Todd Pletcher. Matz wasted little time in naming Leparoux as the rider for Union Rags, who like Seattle Slew, captured the prestigious Champagne Stakes (gr. I) at 2, adding still another parallel to the two stories.


Leparoux’s first ride aboard Union Rags was child’s play, as the son of Dixie Union toyed with his field in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), establishing himself as a hot favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But then came his questionable ride in the Florida Derby, which became and still is a major topic of conversation, as Leparoux got Union Rags trapped down on the inside, with who else but Javier Castellano, on El Padrino , keeping him pinned down and blocking any escape route. Castellano had lost Algorithms to injury and now was trying to beat his old friend with another of Pletcher’s big guns.


Leparoux remained bogged down on the inside on the backstretch and around the far turn and even when Castellano finally asked El Padrino for his run, Union Rags still couldn’t break free, with the closers now making their move from the back of the pack. By the time Leparoux was able to find running room the race was pretty much lost, as Take Charge Indy and Reveron, running one-two the whole way, weren’t coming back on the speed-favoring track. Union Rags began pulling away from El Padrino in the final yards, but was unable to catch the first two.


Both Leparoux and Castellano were criticized for their rides, allowing two longshots to steal the race right from under their noses. But now, a wiser Leparoux, who may have been a bit too confident on the 2-5 favorite following his easy score in the Fountain of Youth, is anxious to put Union Rags back in the spotlight on May 5. If he succeeds, you can bet visions of Jean Cruguet and Seattle Slew will start creeping into his head.


There are some who believe Leparoux was merely a victim of circumstance in the Florida Derby and was powerless to avoid the predicament in which he was placed. Either way, you can expect a more aggressive and calculating ride at Churchill Downs.


Leparoux reacted strongly to the criticism of his ride, sending out a rather blunt response on Twitter, saying, “I’m going to stay off Twitter tonight BUT to all the ones that say I (stunk), I will prove you wrong.”


He’ll get his big chance in 11 days. Right now he’s only interested in looking ahead and not dwelling on the past.


Some members of the media tried to get him to address the Florida Derby on a national teleconference April 24, but Leparoux would have no part of it.


The important thing is that he came back sound and had an easy race,” he said. “I’m just trying just trying to forget the Florida Derby and focus on the Kentucky Derby. All I want is to have Union Rags in a position to win, that’s all. I try to have a plan going into the race, but I want to see post positions. A lot of the time you have to ride the race as it comes. You can have a Plan A, but you often wind up having to go to Plan B or C. Hopefully, we’ll get a good trip and he can show his true talent. Then we’ll see who’s best. This is a very competitive group of horses.”


Some have also questioned Union Rags’ pedigree going a mile and a quarter, but Leparoux is confident he’ll be able to get the trip.


“Obviously you don’t know until you try it,” he said. “But in the Florida Derby he ran late and didn’t get tired and galloped out strong. I believe the gallop-out is important. If after a mile and an eighth you just stop after the wire and go nowhere, then distance might be a problem. You have to have a lot of gears in the Derby and I believe he has those gears. When we finally got out in the Florida Derby, he came on strong.”


Leparoux didn’t see his first Kentucky Derby until 2002, the first year it was televised in France. He saw the race live for the first time in 2004 and said it was an amazing feeling being there. Once he started riding, the Derby became his dream, and now he’s in a good position to add the Run for the Roses to his many accomplishments.


This time with a little luck, Union Rags will be able to show off his true talents and turn the Florida Derby into a faint memory.