John Velazquez and Todd Pletcher. Javier Castellano and Chad Brown. Mike Smith and Bob Baffert. Ryan Moore and Aidan O'Brien. They are jockey-trainer combinations that command special attention and respect.
In the last two years, Julien Leparoux and Mark Casse have joined that elite list and earned a bright spotlight for 2017 as they team again with 2-year-old champion and leading Kentucky Derby hopeful Classic Empire and two-time turf champion female Tepin. At the recent Eclipse Awards, Leparoux and Casse were the first jockey-trainer duo to be represented by more than one horse honoree since Velazquez and Pletcher in 2007.
The launch of the Leparoux-Casse tandem came right when Leparoux's career needed a boost, following a couple of down seasons as he built business back up on the East Coast after two years riding mostly in Southern California. Leparoux had peaked in 2009, when he won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey. In 2014, he ranked 23rd by purse earnings and only collected one Grade 1 win.
The French-born Leparoux had ridden for Casse occasionally through the years but without any notable success. That started to change in early 2015, with a quiet turning point in a March turf allowance race at Gulfstream Park when he guided Tepin to an authoritative victory to kick off her 4-year-old season. She and Leparoux would ascend from there to four graded stakes wins by November, capped off by a win over males in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
As a whole, Casse's barn had never been deeper, and Leparoux was relied on more and more for the choicest mounts. Last year, Leparoux and Casse combined for 15 stakes wins, including six in a row from Tepin, highlighted by a landmark triumph in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot in England.
"I have been so happy riding for Mark," Leparoux said. "When I came back from California, it was very important to find a big stable that would trust me to ride their horses. To be riding a horse like Tepin is more than I could have ever hoped for.
"I was very impressed when I rode her the first time. I knew we had something good, but of course, I had no idea how good it would be."
Casse said, "Julien and I were on a plane the other day and we were talking about how things kind of came together for us. It's amazing. He came back and here we had this filly at Gulfstream who was coming off a long layoff and we put him on, and it was Tepin, and look where she has taken us."
A key component to the relationship is Leparoux's agent, Steve Bass, who has a long history with Casse dating back to the early 1980s when Bass was an exercise rider and Casse was a very young, successful trainer. In his early 20s, Casse was already among the leading trainers at Churchill Downs, and that barn turned out to be a wellspring of sharp horsemen, with eventual prominent trainers Tom Albertrani and Kiaran McLaughlin also working under that shedrow. By 1984, Bass was ready to become a jockey, and Casse provided his first race mount and his first winner.
Bass retired and became an agent and eventually hitched onto Leparoux's star right from the start, when he was an apprentice jockey.
Bass said, "Mark always used Julien through the years but they were never in the same place all that much until Julien came back from California and Mark had set up shop in Kentucky with his son, Norman, who I have known since he was born. We slowly got Julien on more and more horses for Mark and Norman, and then Tepin came along.
"For me, it's been incredible, and doing it by coming full circle with the Casse family. To go over to Royal Ascot with Tepin and win, it's hard to describe. Julien always told me 'Man, I would just like to go over there and ride, I don't care if the horse is 19-to-1.'"
Kiddingly, Bass added, "I don't know if Julien can go back there now because how could it be any better than what she did last year?"
Casse said Leparoux has played a big part in getting Tepin to relax early in her races. She still races prominently, usually tracking in second or third, but she is not as keen as she was as a 2- and 3-year-old.
"She was a little more headstrong when he first started riding her and she has slowly become more relaxed, and I believe that's what has made her better," Casse said. "I like my horses to learn how to relax and come with a run and not have to play your hand early like with a horse like [Grade 1 winner] Noble Bird who goes straight to the front for us. I like to be able to adapt, and Julien is good at that.
"He is just a versatile rider and he has a real positive attitude, which I like. We all want to win, and we are all disappointed when we don't win, but he is a team player. He comes out in the morning helps us with a lot of our young horses and is always there, even if he isn't the one working a horse. He is supporting everyone."
Leparoux worked Classic Empire as early as last spring and was on board for all four of his juvenile wins, the final coming in determined and stirring fashion in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Not This Time.
At this stage, Leparoux does not gallop or work Classic Empire in the mornings, but he has been alongside as the pilot for the colt's workmate this winter, preparing for a return race on Saturday in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
"He looks like he has grown up quite a bit this winter," Leparoux said. "I'm really looking forward to getting back on him this weekend."
Classic Empire will be returning in early February for a prep schedule leading up to the Kentucky Derby that will challenge recent trends. Eight of the last 10 Derby winners have only raced twice in prep races at three. Casse is not one to sit back and wait a month or 45 days in between starts.
"I like running them," Casse said. "I just think there are so many pluses to running them. This horse has already got a lot of experience, and the more he runs, it's just going to make him better.
"I prefer to run every three weeks or so. We've proven that with [2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner] Catch a Glimpse, we've proven that with Tepin. Being around Allen Jerkens, he told me, 'I don't understand trainers, they want to give them a rest when they are running good. Why not run them when they are running good and give them a rest when they are not?' I adhere to that theory."