09/19/2006 12:00AM

On top, and just getting started

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Julien Leparoux, 23, leads North American riders with 324 wins in 2006.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In the pantheon of great apprentices, three riders stand out since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971: Chris McCarron, Steve Cauthen, and Kent Desormeaux. All three went on to greater stardom, including the ultimate honor of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

Now a 23-year-old Frenchman has made a bold bid to join the honor roll of great apprentices. Julien Leparoux, who as a bug boy has shattered records for earnings and stakes wins, will become a journeyman on Sept. 25, concluding what has been one of the most successful apprenticeships in American racing history.

Cauthen, who began to take notice of Leparoux when the young rider accepted his first mount in Kentucky last fall at Turfway Park, said he believes Leparoux has earned the right to be named among the best of the best.

"He's naturally a good horseman, well instructed, and he was given enough experience before he was let loose," said Cauthen. "He really has a great feel for what he has under him."

Among his many feats as an apprentice, Leparoux has led all North American jockeys in wins since the first day of 2006. Through Tuesday, he had 324 winners this year, allowing him to keep a comfortable margin over Ramon Dominguez (284) and the rest of his pursuers.

The balance of Leparoux's apprentice log is even more impressive. He has 18 stakes wins, a modern-day record. His mounts have earned more than $9.4 million, easily surpassing Jeremy Rose's former record of nearly $7.5 million. Leparoux shattered the Turfway mark for most wins in a season - 150 by Rafael Bejarano in 2004 - with 167 at the meet that ended in early April. He became the first bug boy in Keeneland's 70-year history to earn a riding title when he tied with Bejarano last spring. He became the first bug boy since 1949 to win a Churchill Downs riding title when he topped the spring meet standings. He recently ended the Saratoga meet with 28 wins, the most in track history for an apprentice. And he won the Beverly D. on Aug. 12 at Arlington Park aboard Gorella, a rarity indeed for an apprentice in a Grade 1 event.

Leparoux grew up on a farm in the fabled French horse town of Chantilly. His late father, Robert, was an assistant trainer, and Julien has been riding since age 11. After about 1 1/2 years of working as an exercise rider and stablehand in Chantilly, Leparoux arrived at Santa Anita on Jan. 29, 2003, to begin working as an exercise rider for Patrick Biancone, a fellow Frenchman who has since assumed the role of mentor.

Biancone, who gained worldwide fame at 31 as the trainer of All Along, the North American Horse of the Year in 1983, resumed training in the United States in 2000 after 11 years in Europe and the Far East. His stable has steadily grown more powerful since his return, and with Leparoux taking over as his first-call rider after Hall of Famer Gary Stevens retired last November, the circumstances have been ideal for Leparoux to win races by the fistful for Biancone and other trainers.

After Leparoux began riding at the 2005 Saratoga meet, Biancone often went out on a limb and told people how Leparoux would develop. In fact, both Biancone and Leparoux seemed undeservedly confident, recalled Leparoux's agent, Steve Bass.

"The kid had more confidence in himself than anybody I'd ever seen, at least for his age and experience," said Bass, a former jockey who rode from 1983-94. "I didn't say anything, but I was thinking, 'Well, if you're that good, go on and show me.' And as everybody knows, he's gone out and walked the walk, that's for sure. He's been beyond my wildest dreams."

Leparoux's cool was never more evident than in two of his biggest wins of the year. Both came aboard Gorella in graded races on high-profile days: the Grade 2 Just a Game Breeders' Cup on the June 10 Belmont Stakes undercard, and the Beverly D. on the Arlington Million undercard. In both cases, Leparoux waited extraordinarily long before asking his mount for her best, and Gorella responded with breathtaking stretch runs for dramatic victories. After the Beverly D., an awed Biancone said: "My jockey is the coolest guy."

Stevens became acquainted with Leparoux well before Leparoux began riding races. "I felt like an idiot when I found out he'd never ridden in races back in France," said Stevens. "I'd just assumed he had. Patrick was already putting him on his best horses in the mornings. Julien was very, very savvy and patient, and he had a great sense of pace, and a certain demeanor about him. He never gets excited."

Biancone said he strongly believed his faith in Leparoux's abilities ultimately would be proven correct. "He's a talent, a hard-working guy, and has a great mind," said Biancone. "Those are all the ingredients for any sportsman to succeed."

Leparoux, whose command of English has gradually improved during his 3 1/2 years here, has only a limited knowledge of American racing history and therefore has a difficult time putting his accomplishments into context. He said he knows virtually nothing about McCarron. He correctly noted that Desormeaux had the most wins in a season, having won a record 598 in 1989. And he said Cauthen "won the Triple Crown as an apprentice," when actually Cauthen had lost his bug some 10 months before he rode Affirmed to a Triple Crown sweep in 1978, when Cauthen was 18.

Nonetheless, Leparoux said he is aware that what he has accomplished is special. "I am surprised because of how good it has been," he said. "I only was expecting to win races."

Partly because of the language barrier, and partly because of Leparoux's youth and reserved demeanor, it has been difficult for many people to get to know him well. Bass said Leparoux has spent most of his time doing little more than working, but since last spring, when he began dating Michelle Yu, a freelance production assistant for the TVG network, Leparoux has shown signs of coming out of his personal shell.

"He seems happier since Michelle has been around," said Bass. "It used to be, he'd get up in the morning and work all day, and when you work as much as he does, you need somebody to share your other life with. When you go home, it's nice to have somebody there. Michelle has been very good for Julien."

Cauthen and Stevens say that for Leparoux to continue his ascension within the ranks of America's great jockeys, he will need to persist in what he already is doing right.

"He has steadily improved his strength, his finesse, and his whip handling," said Cauthen. "Right now he's already an all-around product - that's obvious considering how trainers are using him in major stakes races without a second thought. But he still has to try to improve his skills and talent in all areas. Myself, or any of the other guys who were top bug boys, we'd all say we weren't finished jockeys at the time our apprenticeships were over."

"All the good things I saw about Julien in the mornings when I first met him, I was still thinking, 'It's tough to turn that over to the afternoons,' " said Stevens. "But he's been in a lot of situations to prove himself as the real deal. He really has nowhere to go but up."

Apprentices through the years

JockeyYearsMTSWinsStakes WinsEarnings
J. Leparoux*'05-'061,48735218$9,451,004
J. Rose'00-'021,838359117,482,911
K. Desormeaux'86-'871,954349133,419,702
S. Cauthen'76-'772,218524104,302,390
C. McCarron'74-'752,509611n/a3,096,934

* - through Tuesday; n/a - not available
Statistics provided by Equibase and Daily Racing Form