07/14/2011 11:30AM

Q&A: Julien Leparoux

Barbara D. Livingston

One of only four jockeys to win an Eclipse award as an apprentice (2006) and a journeyman (2009). Leparoux, the son of an assistant trainer, came to California in the fall of 2003 to work for trainer Patrick Biancone and began riding races in 2005, in Kentucky. Leparoux won three Breeders’ Cup races in 2009. He was leading rider at the Keeneland and Churchill spring meets this year and will ride the upcoming Saratoga meet. Daily Racing Form caught up with him during a visit to Arlington Park on July 9.

Birthdate: July 15, 1983, in Senlis, France

When you first came here, what were your goals? What did you hope to accomplish?
Well, I wanted to be a jockey, but when I started, it was more like, “If I can get 40 or 50 wins every year, I’ll be happy doing something I love.” From where I come from, from nothing, I was just hoping to ride races. I didn’t do the jockey school. I didn’t really work on the racetrack before. I just did school, rode show jumpers and stuff. To be coming and say I’m going to be a successful jockey – I couldn’t really say that.

What role did Patrick Biancone play when you were getting started?
Patrick never really put a goal on anything. I remember the first race I rode, he told me to just have fun, and that’s it. He put me on my first horse. Then he just kept on going and put me on some very nice horses. When I first started at Turfway Park, he sent 15 or 20 horses for me to ride there. That played a big, big role in me getting started.

What other people had an influence on you when you were getting started?
When I started, my first day in the jock’s room, Gary Stevens kind of took me into his corner and said, “If you need anything, just ask.” That was pretty cool of him.

At what point did you start to think that things might exceed what you first hoped to accomplish here?
I never really was thinking about it. Like Patrick always told me, go out and have fun, so I always went out to the races and had fun, to just take things day by day. Obviously, I rode a lot of winners at Turfway Park at first, but I still didn’t know I was going to be first call for Patrick for the meet at Keeneland or Churchill. I didn’t know that yet. I got lucky and won with a bunch of them, and he made me first call after that. Then, you know, when I got to Keeneland, I was the first apprentice to win the meet there. I look back, and everything just kept on going.

You were pretty much successful one step after another once you got started, right? Were there ever times you struggled, when things didn’t go well, when you wondered where your career might be headed?
No, not really. As an apprentice, no, because of Patrick and the way he put everything together for me. He made sure I never had a slow time in my career, especially when I lost my bug – that’s the hard part. Patrick said, “You’re going to go to Turfway to make sure you keep on winning,” so I went there and kept on winning after that, and then I went to Keeneland, and he put me on a bunch more horses there. He just made sure that there was always momentum.

Patrick is the first one that put me on some horses, but you’ve got other trainers and owners that have been a big part of that, too. Mike Maker is one of them, the owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey, Eddie Kenneally. Those were guys that have been great.

When you first started getting more chances in bigger races, did you ever feel intimidated or wonder how you’d fit in those kinds of situations?
No, no. I was pretty laid-back, so I never really thought of that. Try to take those big races as an everyday race. Obviously, it’s not an everyday race, but you’ve got to try and make it like it is, you know?

You’re an American-style rider now? Or is there still a European influence to you?
I’m definitely an American rider. I always say that I’m French, yes, but I consider myself an American jockey. I never rode in France, so to me, I start here, and that’s it. I never learned any other way. Being from France and watching the races, I don’t know, maybe I put some of that together. But when I go to different places – like I went to Japan and Hong Kong – and they always list me as an American jockey, not French.

Are you an American citizen?
I’m a resident. I have to wait about three more years before I can apply for citizenship.

How often do you go back to France? What do people there think of what you’ve done in the States?
I try to go back once a year. I think people are surprised and happy and amazed, I guess. It’s just so different here than there if you look at numbers. Racing’s so much bigger here, more races, more opportunities. Some of the top riders there, maybe they would win 2,000 races. I’ve only ridden six years, and I’ve gotten almost 1,500. When I got my 500th win at Churchill, people in France thought that was my 500th win anywhere. I had to tell them, “No, that’s only at one track.”

When did you start feeling comfortable speaking English? When you came here, you didn’t know much English at all, right?
No, I didn’t know much at all. It was difficult, but I guess it’s just something you’ve got to practice every day. Actually, when I got to America, the first six months I probably didn’t even learn a word. I didn’t have to. I had Patrick, there were French people in California that I knew, so I never really learned. When I moved to Kentucky, that’s when I’m like, “Oh, wow, I’ve got to learn now.” I guess I basically just tried to talk to people. It could be difficult sometimes, but at least you tried, and probably people respect that.

About American culture: Is there anything you especially like? Things that are much different from where you grew up?
One thing I really, really like is how American people love their country. They love everything about it, and that’s a lot different from France. It’s not that people don’t care about their country in France, but here, it’s like they teach you from when you’re little. Like people here always standing for the national anthem – we don’t do that.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I love sports. I love driving cars. That’s my weakness, cars.

So what kind of cars do you have?
I have one car. A Porsche Panamera. Turbo.

What about dealing with becoming kind of famous? You seem like a kind of humble person, who doesn’t put yourself out there.
Definitely. It takes some getting used to. When I rode for Patrick, all the people there were really like a family, and I think they were a big part of it. You stay around people you know pretty well. When you start to be famous and stuff, if you don’t stick around with good people, you can really find the bad part of it. But I didn’t, because of that, I think.

What about dirt racing? Did that take time to feel comfortable? You started out at Turfway on a synthetic track, and Biancone is an international trainer with a lot of turf horses.
Dirt tracks are different. I got used to Polytrack or turf faster because I think right away, being a European guy, everyone thought I was a turf rider. That’s fine, that’s okay. But that’s when Mike Maker and Eddie Kenneally, those guys started to put me on dirt horses. You get used to it.

(Just then, two riders come into the Arlington jock’s room after a race screaming at each other. One has claimed foul against the other)

Have you ever gotten in a fight with any other rider?
No. I can get mad, but I try to keep it to myself. If you fight, it doesn’t resolve anything, really. The payback is try to win more races. I think that’s the best payback.

How many times have you ridden in the Kentucky Derby?
I rode five Derbies. My best finish is fifth. The Derby is probably the best race ever, to ride, anyway. To win, I don’t know yet, but hopefully I get there.