Leparoux helps 3 horses into Derby, topped by Classic Empire

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) For a moment last winter, Julien Leparoux wondered if he might be a spectator for the Kentucky Derby.

Fast forward several months to the jockey not only participating, but almost having multiple horses to ride in a bid to win his first Run for the Roses.

Leparoux was always certain to ride Classic Empire, the colt who is the early 4-1 favorite for Saturday's race at Churchill Downs. After all, the 33-year-old Frenchman has ridden the colt to five victories in six starts, including last month's Arkansas Derby that earned a Derby spot.

On the other hand, that Arkansas win left Leparoux with a good problem to have just a week after he rode Irap to victory in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Three in-the-money finishes with State of Honor earned that horse enough Derby points to make the 20-horse field as well.

''The winter's been crazy, Derby-wise,'' said Leparoux, who will break from the No. 14 post with Classic Empire. ''Went from nothing to having three in the Derby. ... We picked up Irap and win the Blue Grass, which was a good surprise, and then State of Honor has run good all winter.

''It's been a good winter and spring, for sure.''

In truth, Leparoux likely would've merited consideration for a Derby mount even without getting a horse into the field. The Eclipse Award-winning jockey has nearly 2,400 wins with seven Breeders' Cup triumphs, including last year's Juvenile aboard Classic Empire.

But by qualifying three Derby hopefuls in as many weeks, Leparoux has demonstrated an ability to coax something more out of his mounts.

Consider that Irap entered the Blue Grass as a 33-1 long shot even with three seconds, a third and three fourths mostly with jockey Mario Gutierrez. With Gutierrez committed to So Conflated for the Santa Anita Derby the same day, trainer Doug O'Neill turned to Leparoux to see if the horse could finish in the money.

Irap went on to a three-quarter-length upset victory as Leparoux made sure his mount saved his best, which didn't surprise O'Neill at all.

''He's just a phenomenal, tremendous jockey with the `it' factor where horses give their best efforts for him,'' O'Neill said. ''What I love about Julien the few times I've used him is he's very prepared. He knew what he wanted to do in that race and he put it to work.''

Leparoux added, ''When you're a long shot, nobody pays attention to you. So we sat second and nobody really pressured me, and I asked him early on to get going.''

In Arkansas, Leparoux saw a now-or-never scenario for Classic Empire, a talented but temperamental horse who balked at a couple of workouts.

The jockey's initial belief that Classic Empire could at least place at Oaklawn Park didn't look good with the horse running mid-pack rounding the far turn. Leparoux got him into third entering the stretch before he turned it on in the final furlong for a half-length victory that seems to have boosted the jockey's outlook.

''Julien seems to get more confidence (from Classic Empire),'' trainer Mark Casse said. ''He was along for the ride, so I don't think he lost total confidence but you do worry when things aren't going great.

''I think Julien came out of Arkansas thinking, `I can win the Kentucky Derby.'''

Saturday will determine whether that happens, but Leparoux takes pride in helping shape the field. The trick will be getting past the two other horses he helped get in there, not to mention 17 others looking to topple the horse to beat.

At the same time, Leparoux's comfort zone at Churchill Downs and a horse that responds well to him could help the jockey realize a dream.

''I think he's got a great shot,'' he said about Classic Empire. ''With all the setbacks we've had, we needed a good race and he showed up. We have to focus on this next one and see if he can stay focused himself. After that, we'll see what happens.''

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