02/03/2016 2:50PM

Mid-Atlantic: Apprentice Francois finding her groove in the saddle

Barbara D. Livingston
Kali Francois leads Todd Pletcher-trained Elena Strikes in the Saratoga paddock prior to her third-place finish in the 2013 Schuylerville. Francois rode four winners at Laurel Park last week.

Seven-pound apprentice Kali Francois hasn’t looked back since closing the books on 2015. She won with four of her seven mounts at Laurel Park last week, including the Monday nightcap aboard 95-1 Rocky Garland. The only other member of the Laurel jockey colony to win more than three races was leading reinsman Trevor McCarthy, who went 8 for 29.

Rocky Garland, trained by Ferris Allen III, had been beaten by double-digit lengths in his previous four starts, but Francois put him on the lead in the $5,000 claiming race, and he scored by 3 1/2 lengths over the good track, paying $192.20 and single-handedly causing a $15,187 pick five carryover into the Friday card.

“Ferris told me that he didn’t like getting dirt in his face, and I just went out and rode him with confidence,” Francois said.

Francois has won with six of her last 14 mounts. In the second half of 2015, she won 10 races.

“I feel like I’m getting in a good groove,” Francois said. “I’m starting to feel as comfortable in the afternoons as I am in the mornings.”

Four of Francois’s recent wins have come for trainer Kieron Magee, who has led all trainers on the Maryland Jockey Club circuit in wins the past two years.

“She doesn’t panic,” Magee said. “When you make a plan, sometimes it doesn’t work out, but she’ll stay very patient and let the race come to her. She’s become my go-to bug rider.”

Although Francois is in the early stages of her career, she has been preparing for this for a long time while working for one exceptional horseman after another.

Francois, 25, grew up on a breeding farm about an hour north of Lambeau Field in the Wisconsin town of Marinette. After experiencing success at the state and national levels in 4-H and American Quarter Horse Association competitions, she became a working student for two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton, who has been the top eventing rider in the United States 13 times. Francois then attended the North American Racing Academy of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron.

After a year and a half in Kentucky, McCarron set up an internship for Francois with trainer Todd Pletcher. Francois worked as an exercise rider for Pletcher, primarily in Florida and at Saratoga, from early 2012 until October 2014. Before she left his employ, Pletcher gave Francois her first two career mounts, one at Belmont Park and the other at Aqueduct.

“Working for Todd was such a good experience,” Francois said. “They revamped my riding a little bit, and I learned how to talk to owners. His operation is an absolute example of teamwork.”

Francois next headed to Australia, where she worked six months for Gai Waterhouse, who has trained more than 100 Group 1 winners and is a member of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame. Upon returning to the U.S., Francois, on the advice of Rosie Napravnik, began riding at Delaware Park last July.

She won her first career race at Monmouth Park in September, notched her fifth winner – which began her one-year apprenticeship – at Laurel in November, and now seems to be finding herself as a rider.

“Timing is everything, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity Kieron is giving me,” Francois said. “It’s just wonderful.”

Francois also credits trainers Gerald Brooks, Jose Corrales, and Hammy Smith, among others, for helping her in Maryland. Still, she could use more mounts. She is only named on one horse Friday and two Saturday.

Francois is determined to succeed, and on Tuesday, she was equally as focused on a race she thought she could have won Monday as she was on Rocky Garland’s victory.

“As much as I like to win, I hate to lose even more,” she said. “I could have had a second winner in the third race if I had done things a little differently.”

With that attitude, the wins should keep coming. “I try to strive for perfection in everything I do,” Francois said.