Rider on a roll: how 'Flo' put his miserable start in the U.S. well and truly behind him

Florent Geroux and The Pizza Man after winning the Arlington Million. Photo: Arlington Park

Jockey Florent Geroux recalls watching the 2006 Breeders’ Cup on television with his buddies in his native France when a thought crossed his mind, ‘Oh, one day I should go to America and visit.’

For Geroux the notion turned out to be more than a fleeting whimsy. Not long after, he was on his way to America to continue his career, which, at that point, was highlighted by his champion season as France’s top apprentice in 2005.

Now the 29-year-old is in the midst of his best season in the United States, with his mounts having earned in excess of $6.8 million through the first nine months of 2015, placing him just outside the top 10 in money won among his peers.

His recent hot streak includes being top rider in money won at this year’s Arlington Park meet, and an incredible tear at the recently concluded Kentucky Downs meet, where he led the standings in both wins and purses and rode five winners on two different cards at the five-day stand that exclusively features turf racing on its European-style course.

As the final round of Breeders’ Cup preps take place this weekend, Geroux will be sitting astride some serious horsepower. At Keeneland on Friday, he rides Work All Week, the gelding he piloted to an upset victory in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, in the Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes.

Saturday at the Lexington, Kentucky, track, Geroux will partner the horse he won this year’s Arlington Million on, The Pizza Man, in the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile. The Shadwell is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series and is a designated “Win and You’re In” race for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland Oct. 31. The Shadwell, along with other Challenge Series races run at Keeneland and Belmont Park, will be broadcast live on NBC, starting at 5 p.m. ET.

Geroux, whose father was a jockey in France, didn’t arrive at his present success without some struggles. It was very rough going when he began riding in this country, on the Southern California circuit, in 2007. He won just a combined 71 races in his first three years. A series of  setbacks, including issues with his visa and a serious back injury sustained in a spill at Keeneland, combined with the lack of garnering solid mounts, would have sent many riders packing.

“I was doing super good while I was in France. I came here . . .  I wouldn’t say I couldn’t buy a mount, but it was slow,” said Geroux, who attended the renowned AFASEC jockey school in France. “Slowly, but surely, I found better mounts.”

One of the first of many pivotal moments in his career occurred when Doug Bredar, a longtime racing official and former racing secretary at Churchill Downs, became his agent in 2010.

“There were some very challenging times at first,” Bredar admitted. “We went one for 56 or 57 in our first season at Gulfstream — that will push you to the limit, without a shadow of a doubt. But I always felt Flo was a really, really smart kid. I just saw something there and believed the potential would just eventually catch up. I thought if the ability caught up to what I knew was in his head, that he could be a really special rider.”

Geroux found a more fluid flow when he began riding regularly on the Illinois circuit, and later at the Fair Grounds in Louisiana during the winter. In the fall of 2011, he won the jockey title at Hawthorne Race Course, outside Chicago. The same year, he broke through the 100-win barrier for the first time since coming to the United States.

When he won the Hawthorne title, Geroux was riding first call for Richard and Karen Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, a considerably large and successful operation that provided the rider with plentiful mounts.

That relationship continued to evolve and later led to Geroux gaining the mounts on the Papiese-owned The Pizza Man and Work All Week. The latter provided the jockey with his first G1 career victory, in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint. It was Geroux’s initial appearance at the World Championships.

Along the way, Geroux also caught the attention of veteran horseman Wayne Catalano, a former jockey. Geroux guided I’m Already Sexy and Solitary Ranger to graded stakes wins for Catalano.

Catalano said he is not at all surprised by Geroux’s flurry of notable achievements as of late.

“He has good hands on a horse and a good head, and horses run for him,” Catalano said. “He works hard and he is very light [in weight]. There is nothing like the experience of riding — riding in good races, riding good horses, and riding against good jockeys. That is probably the best thing you can do to improve as a rider.”

“When you’re on a roll like he is, you’re just hard to beat,” Catalano added. “As a rider, you think every horse you get on, you can win on them. The horses [sense] that. I think a rider gives off that confidence to everybody around him.”

Just as Geroux’s fortunes have changed in recent years, so too has his riding style, at least to a certain extent. Geroux said his custom of sitting high in the saddle — as is the wont of many European riders — is not as pronounced as it was when he first came to America.

“The more you ride, the more experience you get [adjusting your style],” he said. “I ride a little high on the horse, but that’s where I get my balance, and how I get my horses to relax. That is the way I was taught and what works for me. It takes time; I had to adjust little by little. I still ride a little high in the saddle, but not as much now. Before, when you would watch me in a race, you would say, ‘That’s him.’ Now it’s, ‘I don’t know. I’m not quite sure’.”

What is for certain, Geroux is on a roll that has timely implications as the Breeders’ Cup approaches. In addition to Breeders’ Cup probables Work All Week [Sprint] and The Pizza Man [Turf], the rider has the mount on Longines Distaff hopeful I’m a Chatterbox, a horse he won the $1 million Cotillion Stakes aboard at Parx Racing on Sept. 19. He also rides Catch a Glimpse, who earned a berth to the Juvenile Fillies Turf by winning the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine with Geroux in the saddle earlier in September.

In 2006, when he sat down to watch the World Championships with his friends in France, Geroux could only dream of riding in the Breeders’ Cup. Now that it’s a reality, the married father of two young children feels a rush of gratitude.

“While the Kentucky Derby is America’s race, the Breeders’ Cup races are watched around the world,” Geroux said. “I’m lucky to be a part of it.”

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