05/03/2017 12:46PM

Hovdey: In a room full of stars, Prat on meteoric rise

Barbara D. Livingston
Flavien Prat rides favored Paradise Woods, one of the horses that helped him win the recently concluded Santa Anita winter/spring meet, in Friday's Kentucky Oaks.

Flavien Prat was acting like a kid at Christmas. No, check that. He was acting like a kid the week before Christmas, dizzy with anticipation.

“He kept saying, ‘Let’s get to the big stuff,’ ” said his agent, Derek Lawson, as last Saturday’s Santa Anita program began. “I told him to be patient. Do his job, and then we would be heading for Kentucky. It would be here before he knew it.”

Prat responded by winning five races over the weekend, but he can hardly be blamed for chafing at the bit. On Friday, he will be riding Santa Anita Oaks winner Paradise Woods in the Kentucky Oaks – she is the morning-line favorite – then, on Saturday, the young Frenchman will make his Kentucky Derby debut aboard Battle of Midway, the runner-up last time out in the Santa Anita Derby.

Jerry Hollendorfer, who trains Battle of Midway, has no qualms about hitching his fortunes to a Derby rookie, while Dan Ward, Hollendorfer’s assistant, calls Prat “a difference-maker.”

“He’s the kind of rider who doesn’t need to be on the best horse to win,” Ward said. “They don’t come around too often.”

Ward could have had in mind the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes from Dec. 26, in which Prat gave the Hollendorfer filly Constellation an icy ride to win at odds of 12-1. Or he might have been thinking about the afternoon at Del Mar in 2015 when Prat and Wild Dude upset Masochistic in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at 11-1, also for Hollendorfer.

Last Saturday between races, Santa Anita management passed out mementos in the winner’s circle for the leading trainer and jockey of the winter-spring meet.

With Hollendorfer away on business in San Francisco, Ward represented the barn, while Prat was honored for his first outright Southern California title since he began riding there in late 2014.

“I’ll put it on the mantel,” Prat said of the award, “and try to get it some company.”

Prat is 24 and comes from the town of Melun, located about 70 miles southeast of Paris, where his father and brother train Standardbreds. Ten years ago, Prat left home to attend jockey school in Chantilly.

“That’s the biggest difference between riders in France and here,” Prat said. “There, you must go to the jockey school and do well. Here, all you need to do is show up at the track and say, ‘I’m a jockey.’ ”

Prat was a quick study, and it showed. He was France’s leading apprentice in 2013, while in the U.S., he adapted to the faster pace and positional tactics of American racing with impressive ease. As for riding in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby, Prat should not be fazed since French jockeys are regularly faced with huge fields in handicaps and the lottery-style tierce races.

Still, there must be a few tips Prat could glean from a Santa Anita room full of Hall of Famers oozing Derby vibes. Between them, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, and Victor Espinoza have won the classic 10 times, and they are hungry for more. Prat laughed.

“If I asked them, do you think they would tell me anything?” he said.

Just then, Espinoza walked past, and the theory was put to a test. His Derby mount is Gormley, who beat Battle of Midway only a half-length in the Santa Anita Derby.

“Any advice about the Kentucky Derby for Flavien?” Espinoza was asked.

“Yeah,” Espinoza replied. “Stay out of my way.”

Few young riders not named Ortiz have risen as quickly as Prat on a major U.S. circuit, and certainly not young riders from France. When new shooters come to Southern California from somewhere else, they usually bring along an established résumé, in a tradition coursing back to Laffit Pincay, Sandy Hawley, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Desormeaux, and, more recently, Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano.

By contrast, Prat was a well-kept secret except to those who knew he was not only champion apprentice but also the No. 2 rider for the powerful stable of Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, for whom he won the Group 1 Marcel Boussac. He had wintered twice in California as a teenager, working for fellow Frenchman Leonard Powell, then played his Wertheimer card to connect with their California trainer, Richard Mandella.

“I was ready not to be overly impressed,” Mandella said. “Then he got on a horse for me, and he just melted into the saddle like wax. It was pretty clear he had something special.”

Other trainers joined the queue. Prat has won major stakes for Bob Baffert with Hoppertunity and Lord Nelson. Phil D’Amato always has a top turf horse saddled and waiting, topped by Obviously, Prat’s winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Prat took the Gamely for Michael McCarthy, the Arcadia for Carla Gaines, and even teamed with The Pizza Man and Roger Brueggemann for a stakes score on a trip to Canada.

Prat also has been tested by injury more than once, most severely in September 2015, when he fractured five vertebrae and punctured a lung in a crash at Los Alamitos. Last November, he went down at Del Mar and bruised a kidney that kept him sidelined until symptoms cleared.

Each time, Mandella was there to welcome Prat back aboard horses, both morning and afternoon. It was no surprise, therefore, to see the Hall of Fame trainer standing proudly next to Prat during the Santa Anita ceremony.

“You’d think it would be enough for him to be such a good rider,” Mandella said. “But he’s also a really nice young man.”

Their collaboration has included major wins with the fillies Avenge and Wild At Heart, and now they are trying to grab the brass ring in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Oaks with Paradise Woods.

“It was last December, before she’d even started, when Mandella made me look him in the eye and listen to what he had to say about her,” agent Lawson recalled. “He said he had a very special filly and that we needed to tell him then and there we would stick with her.”

There you go. Only a fool would say no when the Godfather asked a favor. Paradise Woods lost her debut Jan. 26 but came back to clear the air in a maiden sprint, then ran off the screen in the Santa Anita Oaks, winning by nearly a dozen lengths. Not surprisingly, Prat sees her as a work in progress, which means he must be ready for anything on a wild Oaks Friday in front of more than 100,000 Churchill Downs fans.

“She got hot saddling last time,” Prat noted, “but when she got with the pony, she settled down. She was not perfect, but she was fine. Every time you need to teach her something, the next time you ask her, she does it. As much progress as she has made physically, she has made even more mentally.”

Prat was at Churchill Downs last spring to ride Mokat in the Oaks for Richard Baltas. They beat one horse, but the afternoon was not a total loss. In the Grade 3 Twin Spires Turf Sprint, Prat teamed with Rocket Heat to score at 9-1. The following day, Prat took the Grade 1 Humana Distaff aboard Taris on the Derby undercard, then sat back to enjoy the view.

“In France, the Kentucky Derby is not that big of a deal, mostly because it’s a dirt race,” Prat said. “The Breeders’ Cup has more prestige. But being there, watching the riders get ready, how the crowd was so involved, and then seeing the riders come back from the experience ...”

His eyes were bright. It was almost Christmas.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Prat said. “I said to myself, ‘Next year, I have to be one of them.’ ”