06/20/2016 10:20AM

Gold Cup win would gild Prat's excellent season

Shigeki Kikkawa
Flavien Prat has already won as many races this year as he did all of last year.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Last Friday, on a warm afternoon at Santa Anita, jockey Flavien Prat won three races from seven mounts, the highlight of an otherwise-quiet program. The hat trick moved Prat into a tie for the lead in the standings for the spring-summer meeting with Rafael Bejarano and represented his 82nd through 84th victories of 2016.

At the same point last year, Prat had 41 wins. Prat missed more than three months last year because of a back injury and won 84 races for the entire year.

How much Prat can accomplish this year remains to be seen, but expectations have soared.

“I’ve had a good first part of the year,” Prat said on Sunday. “I’ve been much better than last year, that’s for sure.

“I’ve got good horses now. I’ve got a good percentage. It’s all together.”

Prat has won six graded stakes this year, three more than in 2015. On Saturday, he’ll try for his third Grade 1 win of 2016 when he rides Bal a Bali for trainer Richard Mandella in the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

Prat, a 23-year-old native of France, has been closely allied with Mandella since he began riding in the United States in early 2009. Prat rode only winters in California for several years until deciding to relocate from France on a full-time basis in late 2014.

Last year, Prat’s mounts earned $5,247,773, yet he did not ride from mid-September to late December after fracturing five vertebrae in a spill at Los Alamitos. He underwent extensive rehab last fall and resumed riding about six weeks earlier than expected. Prat continues physical therapy on a weekly basis to maintain peak fitness, according to his agent, Derek Lawson.

Through Sunday, Prat was second in the standings at Santa Anita with 32 wins, one fewer than Bejarano. His mounts have earned a personal-best $5,364,794 in the United States this year. In addition, Prat rode Hoppertunity to a third in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March.

Turf racing has played a vital role in Prat’s success at the Santa Anita meeting. He has won 22 races on turf since the meeting began May 5, or 33 percent of his mounts on the surface. Overall, Prat has won with 19 percent of his mounts this year. Despite the success on grass, he bristles at the label of turf rider.

“I’ve got a good percentage on turf,” he said. “I know I come from Europe and people think that I’m better on turf, but I don’t believe in that. It’s a lot about which horses you’re on.”

Prat may have difficulty winning the riding title at this meeting, which ends July 10. He will not ride Thursday or Friday as part of a three-day suspension for causing interference in a race June 9. Saturday marks the third day of Prat’s suspension, but he can ride the Gold Cup because it is exempt from routine suspension as a graded stakes.

Bal a Bali will be a longshot in the Grade 1 Gold Cup, run at 1 1/4 miles on dirt. Bal a Bali has won 13 of 21 starts and $763,478, all on turf in Brazil and California.

Bal a Bali, 6, won 11 of 12 starts in Brazil, including the 2014 Rio Triple Crown. He has struggled in this country, first with illness and more recently in stakes competition. Bal a Bali was found to have laminitis after arriving in the United States in 2014. He recovered and was sent to Mandella’s stable in early 2015.

In California, Bal a Bali has won 2 of 9 starts and earned $253,400. Bal a Bali was fourth as the 7-5 favorite in the Grade 2 Charles Whittingham Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on turf May 29.

Prat thinks Bal a Bali will like both the 1 1/4 miles and the dirt in the Gold Cup.

“He should be better on the dirt,” Prat said. “We’ve always expected better from him.”

For the final weeks of the meeting, there is no turf racing while the course is being renovated. That puts Prat’s focus on the Del Mar summer meeting, which runs July 15 to Sept. 5. Last summer, Prat won 30 races at Del Mar, finishing second in the standings to Bejarano, who had 39 wins. Prat has higher hopes for this Del Mar meet as he continues his most successful year of riding in the United States.