Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent racing personalities for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The opening leg of the Triple Crown will be run on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
This week, he talks to jockey Julien Leparoux, who swept two major prep races when he guided Irap to a shocking upset as the first maiden winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in that race’s 93-year history before he paired with Classic Empire to win the Arkansas Derby, the last major prep. Classic Empire rebounded strongly after running a disappointing third in the Lambholm Holy Bull Stakes, his only previous prep. He was found to have foot and back issues after that race in early February.
Leparoux, 33, was born to a racing family in France. He emigrated to the United States in 2003 and won the Eclipse Award as the outstanding apprentice rider in 2006. He earned another Eclipse in 2009 as the leading jockey in North America.
He will ride Classic Empire, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, in search of his first Derby triumph. He has already combined with the Pioneerof the Nile colt for five victories, three of them Grade 1 scores.
PEDULLA: What has this spring been like for you?
LEPAROUX: It’s been really good. Irap was a nice surprise in the Blue Grass and then the Arkansas Derby was a big win to show that Classic Empire is back to his normal self.
PEDULLA: When you go to the starting gate in the Blue Grass with a maiden, what is your attitude? Do you dismiss from your mind that he is a maiden longshot?
LEPAROUX: Yeah, you have to try your best no matter what. I talked to (trainer) Doug O’Neill before the race and I knew I would have a nice set-up. I knew Irap had to be one or two to get into the Derby. I’m glad we got the win.
PEDULLA: Was Classic Empire much more like himself in the Arkansas Derby?
LEPAROUX: Exactly. I breezed him twice in Ocala and he breezed good. We were expecting him to run good, which he did, but if he got tired and got beat we wouldn’t have been surprised either because he was not 100 percent fit. He ran a big race and we’re very happy with that. This should set him up perfectly for the Derby.
PEDULLA: How excited are you about riding Classic Empire in the Derby?
LEPAROUX: I’m really excited. I’ve been excited since last year, especially when we won the Breeders’ Cup. The winter we had with him was frustrating, but now he’s back to his old self. He’s probably going to be the favorite.
PEDULLA: You’ve fallen short in the Derby before. Did you just not have the right horses?
LEPAROUX: Yeah, yeah, for sure. I’ve ridden before in the Derby, but it was not a good set-up for them. I was a bit unfortunate with that, but I think Classic Empire has a good chance.
PEDULLA: How do you think the Derby might unfold?
LEPAROUX: I think Classic Empire should break pretty good and put me in a nice comfortable spot. For sure, I’ll have a good trip. Now, we just have to wait for the post position and see where we are.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to win the Derby?
LEPAROUX: It’s a dream for every jockey. What would it mean? I don’t know. I hope I find out this year.