04/02/2008 12:00AM

After reality check, Leparoux in comfort zone

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Racing often is characterized by highs and lows, by slumps and resurgences. Julien Leparoux would scarcely know any of this, having experienced almost nothing but phenomenal success since embarking on his North American riding career some 2 1/2 years ago, but a subpar last few months have him feeling he may have something to prove at Keeneland.

"The winter was kind of disappointing," said Leparoux, who has won or tied for the riding title at three of the last four Keeneland meets. "But it will be very nice to be back at Keeneland. I have always had a great experience there."

The 25-year-old Leparoux, born and raised in France, has improved his command of the English language in a manner similar to how his riding skills have improved since he was given his first mount by his longtime mentor, trainer Patrick Biancone, at the 2005 Saratoga meet. That is, both have gotten better on a remarkable scale. Leparoux has gone from halting to fluent in English and from nascent prodigy to established star as a rider, with the most recent four months representing the only notable blip in that steady rise.

Leparoux left Churchill Downs as the leading rider last Nov. 24 with the intent of taking the Southern California circuit by storm. After a stopover in Japan, he got off to a slow start at Hollywood Park - and then barely got out of a gallop. Leparoux left California in late January with a combined record of 3 for 60 at Hollywood and Santa Anita.

Leparoux and his agent, Steve Bass, said the slump was largely attributable to several untimely factors. Their longtime benefactor and would-be main client in California, Biancone, was suspended by Kentucky authorities in October for one year because of medications violations. Other California trainers either were unfamiliar with him or reluctant to use him for various reasons, and while Leparoux longed to become better known by horsemen by working for them in the mornings, the track frequently was closed because of major problems with Santa Anita's Cushion Track.

"Before too long it was pretty obvious we needed to get out of there," said Bass.

Leparoux then went to Fair Grounds, where he fared respectably, if not spectacularly. Despite arriving halfway through the four-month meet, he wound up ninth in wins with 27 and eighth in mount earnings with $1.12 million.

Still, Leparoux is lagging behind the pace of the last two years. His mounts earned more than $12 million in both 2006 and 2007, so to catch up, he will need to begin emulating the success he enjoyed primarily at Keeneland, Churchill, and Saratoga during those benchmark seasons.

He can think of no better starting point than the spring meet that starts Friday at Keeneland.

"The good thing about the winter was we went to Fair Grounds and picked up business for Keeneland," he said. "California was not all bad, but you have to get in a position to ride good horses, and we didn't do that. I will go back over there one day, but the time was not right."

Leparoux's statistics clearly have been compromised by the fact that Biancone dispersed his stable last fall as part of an agreement with the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority in his highly publicized cobra venom case. Biancone was the leading trainer at Keeneland at the 2006 fall and 2007 spring meets, with Leparoux, more often than not, riding his winning horses.

Leparoux said he has maintained contact with Biancone but that they don't have a lot to talk about, at least in terms of business. So for the time being, Leparoux will be going solo, so to speak, at a Keeneland meet that he hopes will prove a turning point in what so far has been - for him, anyway - a lackluster year.

"Keeneland is exciting, and I can't wait for it," he said. "It is different from every place else. It has always been a very, very good place for me."