Cue up La Marseillaise for Million Day
It has been a pretty good week for French horseback riders. In Rio de Janeiro, Astier Nicolas, Thibaut Vallette, Mathieu Lemoine, and Karim Florent Laghouag collected Olympic gold medals in the team competition of three-day eventing, while Nicolas added a silver medal in the individual eventing category.
Meanwhile, in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, a mini-Olympics of sorts will convene on Saturday at Arlington Park, where the 34th running of the Arlington Million tops a juicy 10-race program. French is very much on the menu.
Hot-handed Florent Geroux (from Argentan, in Normandy), Flavien Prat (from Melun, 70 miles east of Paris), and veteran Brice Blanc (from Lyon) each have mounts in the $700,000 Beverly D. at 1 3/16 miles on turf. Advantage Geroux in this one aboard Sea Calisi for Chad Brown and Martin Schwartz, although Pretty Girl and Blanc deserve more than a glance, trained as she is by Mikel Delzangles, who knows how to take his game on the road.
Prat would be overlooked in the Beverly D. if it wasn’t for the outfit he’ll be wearing atop the French filly Marypop, trained by Mike Stidham. She is owned by Richard Duchossois, the Arlington Park chairman who first presented the Arlington Million in 1981 and then added the Beverly D. seven years later to honor the memory of his wife. Any jock who wins this race for the boss gets the keys to a couple of cities.
Geroux, 30, and Prat, 24, have developed a friendly rivalry that transcends the time zones. They communicate often, trash-texting in French, and keep close track of how the other guy is doing. This season, the answer is they’re doing just fine.
Prat leads the Del Mar standings with 20 wins through Wednesday’s card. His mount earnings of $6.9 million put him 11th in the national standings, while Geroux is sailing along in fifth with $9.4 million.
(It should be mentioned that Julien Leparoux, 33, and the third of the three young French musketeers, sits in ninth with $7.5 million and would have been at Arlington on Saturday had he not fractured his wrist in a fall at Saratoga last Sunday.)
In the $450,000 Secretariat, at 1 1/4 miles on grass, Geroux is live once again for Brown with Beach Patrol, while Prat rides Arlington Classic winner Surgical Strike for trainer Ben Colebrook. Last time out, the two colts were third and fifth in the Belmont Derby, separated by half a length.
The $300,000 American St. Leger, open to all comers at 1 11/16 miles, is led by Geroux and Da Big Hoss, the winner of the lengthy Belmont Gold Cup. Prat is riding Billabong, a 7-year-old with baffling form that includes his most recent race in Qatar, in February, for trainer Pascal Bary. It was Bary who put the 16-year-old Prat on a ton of winners in France as an apprentice, however, so perhaps there will be some magic at work for their reunion.
Finally, it will be no surprise that Geroux is in with a big chance in the Million itself. He won the race last year aboard The Pizza Man – who is back to defend under Mike Smith – but now goes for two straight aboard World Approval for Mark Casse. World Approval won the American Derby over the course last year and most recently took the United Nations at Monmouth Park.
With John Velazquez otherwise occupied at Saratoga, Prat has picked up the ride on Man o’ War Stakes winner Wake Forest in the Million. If things turn out well, someone might want to mark the day since this will be Prat’s first ride for Brown.
“I’ve been impressed with his riding from afar, particularly on the turf,” Brown said. “And he was available.”
Which doesn’t always happen when a jock is leading a meet. For Brown, Prat and agent Derek Lawson were quick to save the date.
As of Thursday morning, Prat had yet to knuckle down and study the form of Wake Forest, a German-bred 6-year-old who split the field in last year’s Million for Andreas Wohler and was then sent to Brown. In addition to his win for Brown in the Man o’ War on very firm turf, Wake Forest was second in the Pan American and third in the United Nations. Wake Forest is in stall 10 of 13 entered, just inside of World Approval and the likely favorite, Godolphin Racing’s Tryster.
“The horse is pretty straightforward, so I won’t tell Flavien too much,” Brown said of Wake Forest. “Just try to work out a good trip from a challenging post.”
Prat missed a chance to make his debut on the big stage last fall at the Breeders’ Cup while recovering from fractured vertebrae. He rode Hoppertunity to a solid third-place finish for Bob Baffert in the Dubai World Cup in March, and it appears as if he will be riding Dortmund for Baffert against California Chrome and Beholder in next week’s Pacific Classic.
“It’s what we are looking for, to ride for the big trainers,” Prat said. “You don’t want to feel pressure, no matter who you ride for. But it is exciting, and it is an honor to ride for Chad Brown. I hope we do well.”
Like Rick said to Louis Renault in foggy Casablanca, it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.