Once the seal was broken, the milestones came raining down on jockey Florent Geroux as if trying to make up for lost time.
Not until his seventh full season in the saddle did the native of France earn his first grade 1 win—in the 2014 Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint, no less. Since then, Geroux has gone about collecting top-level prizes like a man auditioning for an episode of "Hoarders," crowding his résumé with such feats as a regular engagement aboard the reigning Horse of the Year, a Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) win, and victory in the world's richest race.
This month, another domino was kicked over by Geroux's boot when his fearless handling of Monomoy Girl allowed him to celebrate his first win in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1). He leads all riders in North American earnings for 2018 and is on pace to better his own single-season monetary mark. Barely a decade into his career, he is running low on significant obstacles still to conquer—save for three big stumbling blocks designed to make the best of the best question if they've met their match.
Few moments in horse racing can elicit an emotional response like a win in one of the Triple Crown races—see the normally stoic Todd Pletcher after the 2007 Belmont Stakes (G1). Where Geroux has had enough fist-pumping moments in recent years to dislodge a shoulder, a victory in one of the classics is among his career orders that needs filling.
His latest chance will come May 19 at Pimlico Race Course aboard graded stakes victor Quip in the Preakness Stakes (G1), when he attempts to stop the big red train that is unbeaten Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) winner Justify. Though his sample size in the five-week gauntlet is relatively small—consisting of just seven prior rides in Triple Crown races, including two Preakness mounts—Geroux has seen enough of his brethren chase these jewels to know that proper perspective is as valuable as an agile mount.
"I think (the classics) are the hardest to try and win," said Geroux, whose best Triple Crown effort is a third place on future Horse of the Year Gun Runner in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. "It would be nice to win right away and be over with it, but it looks like I'm going to be chasing it for a bit like a lot of other jockeys. Look at someone like (Hall of Famer) Mike Smith. It took him a long time to get his first Kentucky Derby (Giacomo in 2005), and he thought it might never happen again. And now, he has his second one (aboard Justify). It shows how hard it is."
The adage that you are only as good as your last horse is something even the sport's all-timers take as the gospel. When Gun Runner retired in January following his Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) score, even the man who registered 30 graded stakes wins—including 10 grade 1 triumphs—in 2016 alone felt the depths of that void.
"It's a big hole when you lose a horse like Gun Runner, especially because it seems like everywhere you go when you run the horse, you're going to win, pretty much," Geroux said. "So that was a big hole to fill."
Heirs to a champion don't just fall into your lap, but Geroux has been blessed with some young talents making their case to follow in the footsteps of grade 1 winners Work All Week, The Pizza Man, Catch a Glimpse, and I'm a Chatterbox in his rundown of standout partners. In September, around the same time he was getting acquainted with the chestnut dynamo that is Monomoy Girl, Geroux piloted a bay son of Distorted Humor for his longtime friend, trainer Rodolphe Brisset, in the colt's debut at Churchill Downs.
The expectations weren't of the pie-in-the-sky variety. They centered around the young runner getting some foundation, learning a couple lessons, and hopefully being able to find the winner's circle down the road. Instead, Quip hit the acceleration button on his progress when he prevailed in that initial effort going six furlongs and then returned Oct. 19 and led at every call in a 6 1/2-length victory going 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland.
His first stakes outing resulted in a seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) in November, but there was enough there that Geroux let himself get hopeful about what the 2018 Kentucky Derby prep season held for him.
"We were a little bit surprised he won first time out," Geroux recalled. "We knew he was a nice horse, but Rodolphe didn't have him cranked up 100% to win first time out. He was ready to run a big race but … when the horse won, it showed what type he really was. Then, going two turns the next start, he won pretty easily.
"We were a little disappointed in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but that was a funky race. I was a little bit undecided what I was going do with my horse, and I was lost, the horse was lost, and at the end no one really ran. But I was excited about this year."
There was more to Geroux's good feelings about Quip than what his hands and seat were telling him he had to work with.
The 34-year-old Brisset is also a native of France, and he and Geroux first crossed path as teenagers in their home country. When Geroux came to the United States about a decade ago and started working for trainer Patrick Biancone, he found a kindred spirit and comrade in Brisset, who himself was honing a skill set that would allow him to become one of the top assistants for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott prior to opening his own public stable in April of 2017.
Real friends don't let you go too long without sharing a sip of success. To that end, count Geroux and Brisset as true allies. When Geroux guided Quip to victory during his season debut in the March 10 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), it marked Brisset's first graded stakes win and gave him the distinction of having a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender less than 12 months after hanging out his shingle.
"Of course, it makes things all a little more special because it's Florent, it's fun," Brisset said. "I think he fits this horse very good, too, the way he gets away from the gate, all that stuff. For sure, (a classic win) is something every jockey wants to achieve—at least one. I know the Kentucky Derby is one they all try to win, but there is nothing wrong with winning the Preakness or the Belmont."
Added Geroux, "Having just started only a year ago and having a horse qualify for the Derby, that is a big deal (for Brisset). We always knew he was going to do good, he just needed the right opportunity and the right stock. He's very comfortable with quality horses, and he's been around them for a long time with Bill Mott. Now, he has them in his barn. … He's been around this all for a long time."
Though Quip could have gone on to the first Saturday in May following his runner-up finish in the April 14 Arkansas Derby (G1), Brisset and owners WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing opted to give the colt a breather and instead make a run at the Woodlawn Vase. With his original partner resting up, Geroux picked up the Kentucky Derby mount aboard Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Noble Indy, who struggled over the rain-drenched track and finished 17th.
Days after that mud-splattered outing, confirmation came that Quip—who has common ownership with Justify—would indeed be put on the plane to Baltimore to challenge the unbeaten Derby hero. If Geroux can pull the upset, the sheer magnitude of the achievement would rank right up there with his four Breeders' Cup triumphs.
It also might crack the dam for the next level of landmarks to come his way.
"You work hard every day, but you need to get lucky," Geroux said. "That is such a big part of the game, getting on the right horse at the right time. Hopefully, one day, it is going to be my turn."