07/18/2012 1:49PM

Saratoga: Despite a slow Belmont meet, Leparoux is optimistic as Spa meet begins

Barbara D. Livingston
Julien Leparoux expects to have a stronger meet at Saratoga than he did at Belmont Park.

In the last month, the New York-based jockey Julien Leparoux has traveled to ride at tracks in Kentucky, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Canada, and California.

The one place he didn’t visit enough this summer was the Belmont Park winner’s circle.

In his first stint riding full-time at a Belmont spring/summer meet, Leparoux, a two-time Eclipse Award winning rider, won just 11 races from 104 mounts, putting him 17th in the jockey standings. The numbers become even starker when you consider Leparoux won 12 races from 55 mounts at Churchill Downs riding just eight days at his old, familiar home.

“I was not expecting to just come here and be in the top-three right away,” Leparoux said in a recent interview at Belmont. “I was expecting to try and find business. I think we should have a good meet in Saratoga.”

The 144th Saratoga meet opens Friday and, just as he encountered at Belmont, the jockey colony will be deep and talented. Ten of the top 12 money-earning jockeys will be riding at Saratoga during the 40-day session that runs through Labor Day.

[Complete coverage of racing at Saratoga: News, PPs, and video]

In years past, Leparoux would enter Saratoga riding the wave of momentum that comes with being leading rider at Churchill Downs.

Leparoux has usually done well at Saratoga. This is the U.S. track he started riding at when trainer Patrick Biancone began using him as an apprentice in 2005.

Leparoux picked up his first career victory at Saratoga, riding 39-1 Easter Guardian to a nose win on Aug. 18, 2005. The following summer, Leparoux set a Saratoga record for most wins by an apprentice jockey with 28. Leparoux would win the 2006 Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey.

Leparoux developed into the dominant rider in Kentucky winning nine riding titles at Churchill and seven at Keeneland. In 2009, he won the Eclipse award as North America’s outstanding journeyman rider, becoming just the fourth rider – Steve Cauthen, Chris McCarron, and Kent Desormeaux are the others – to win both the apprentice and journeyman Eclipse Awards.

In between Kentucky meets, Leparoux would summer at Saratoga. The last three summers, he has won 76 races at the Spa, riding a lot for Kentucky-based horsemen such as Steve Asmussen, for whom he won 12 races at last year’s meet.

Lured by the slots-infused purses at NYRA tracks, Leparoux announced in February he would be coming to New York in the spring. He had a solid Gulfstream meet riding 60 winners, won the Keeneland riding title, and won 11 races – including the first two on the Kentucky Derby Day card – in the opening week at Churchill.

Leparoux began riding at Belmont on May 9 and won only with three of his first 40 mounts.

“We knew it was going to be tough,” said Steve Bass, Leparoux’s agent. “It was a little slower than we anticipated, but we didn’t expect to come here and take over.”

Leparoux came to New York following the Kentucky Derby, in which he rode second-choice Union Rags to a seventh-place finish. Breaking from post 4, Union Rags got bumped and squeezed back. He was 17th under the wire for the first time. Union Rags would eventually rally to finish seventh. Leparoux was criticized by some for not trying to get Union Rags into the race earlier than he did.

Was there a hangover effect from the Derby?

“It might be, but I don’t know,” Leparoux said. “I try not to really think about it. What happened was kind of bad luck, unfortunate, and there was a lot of press and that probably didn’t really help me either. But you got to just move on and not think about it too much.”

While John Velazquez rode Union Rags in the Belmont, Leparoux was aboard Atigun for trainer Ken McPeek. Coming to the quarter pole, Atigun was traveling so well that Leparoux thought he was going to pull off the upset. In the end, however, Union Rags snuck through along the rail to beat Paynter by a head while Atigun flattened out late and finished third.

“I really thought I was going to win at the quarter pole,” Leparoux said. “Looking in front of me everybody seemed to be asking for a little bit more and I was just sitting there very nicely and I really thought I was going to win.”

Leparoux said he didn’t feel bad that Union Rags won.

“Surprisingly, I was okay,” Leparoux said. “My horse ran good and I was happy after the race. Union Rags got a little bit more luck this time instead of having it against him. It made the difference.”

One reason Leparoux didn’t win more races at Belmont is that he was frequently out of town on at least one weekend day. But he has won stakes each of the past three weekends.

“New York is not a good place to be a part-timer,” said trainer Christophe Clement, who put Leparoux on five of the rider’s 11 winners at Belmont. “It’s a give and take. He won some major stakes by going out of town but it cost you in your daily business.”

Those trips did pay off as Leparoux won the Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows, the Dance Smartly at Woodbine, and on Sunday – his 29th birthday – the Sunset Handicap aboard Dhaamer.

Making that win more special was the fact Dhaamer is trained by Mike Mitchell, Leparoux’s soon-to-be father-in-law who recently had a brain tumor removed. Leparoux will marry Shea Mitchell later this year.

“Mike is doing good, we’re blessed with that and I’m very excited to get married so it’s all good,” Leparoux said.

Leparoux was scheduled to ride Wednesday’s opening-day card at Del Mar before returning to New York for Friday’s opening day at Saratoga, where he is named to ride six horses.

“I think Saratoga is going to be the meet where we try to find more business. We’re going to start the meet from day one,” Leparoux said. “If we get a good Saratoga meet, we come back here at Belmont and it’s going to keep going. That’s the goal anyway.”