True grit and French grounding: two reasons Flavien Prat has scaled the heights at Del Mar

New champion: Flavien Prat’s Del Mar jockey title completes a remarkable return after suffering a punctured lung and five cracked vertebrae in a fall at Los Alamitos last September. Photo: pmu.fr

Since moving to California in 2014, French rider Flavien Prat has wasted no time muscling his way to the front of one of the toughest jockey colonies in the the U.S. At the start of this year’s Del Mar meet, the young phenom sat down to tell Daniel Ross of his quest to claim his first jockey’s title, hopeful but unaware that only six weeks later, he would do just that ...

Few moments illuminate a character more brightly than the choices we make at those muddled crossroads in our lives. For French jockey Flavien Prat, his decision two years ago to up sticks to the United States draws into stark relief more than anything else a particularly restless and single-minded ambition.

For Prat’s career in France was hardly a wash-out. In 2009, he took home the golden stirrup awarded that year’s champion apprentice. In 2012, he assumed the understudy role behind Olivier Peslier at the powerful stable of brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, for whom he won the 2013 G1 Prix Marcel Boussac on Indonesienne. He rode group winners for top trainers like Andre Fabre and David Smaga.

But, as one prominent trainer put it: “The only thing that surprised me was that his career in France never really took off.”

Over six seasons, twice he broke into the top 20 riders in the country – never the top 10. Indeed, Prat admits himself that he never was going to be considered a serious replacement for Peslier when the veteran jock stepped away from the Wertheimer stable in late 2014 (Maxime Guyon eventually filled Peslier’s vacant seat).

The decision to leave France

Still, given the same position as Prat, many young riders would have hummed and hawed and stayed put, hedging that their career roots, already planted and watered, would prove enduring enough to bear fruits later on.

Not so Prat.

“When I was apprentice, I had success, but when I lost my bug, it was tough,” he said, one cool morning at Del Mar racetrack at a small table outside the stable cafeteria, the Pacific marine layer sagging heavy over our heads like the ceiling of a sprawling big top. Opposite sat his agent, Derek Lawson, to whom Prat occasionally deferred a comment dit? whenever his internal English dictionary failed him.

“It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t picking up,” Prat, 24, added. “So that’s when I said, ‘now, I’ve got to move’.”

Move he did, and it’s paid off handsomely. Prat broke his U.S. G1 duck on Wild Dude in the Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar one year ago, then followed that up this May with a G1 double in the Humana Distaff and Gamely Stakes, aboard Taris and Illuminant.

(Five days after we spoke, Prat landed his second consecutive win in the Bing Crosby Stakes, steering the Bob Baffert-trained Lord Nelson to a near track-record victory)

Nationally, he’s vaulted up the jockey standings to just within the top 10. Here in California, he’s positioned himself even closer to pole position. For Santa Anita’s most recent winter and spring meets, Prat took silver behind Rafael Bejarano in the race for the jockey’s title.

“It would be a good accomplishment for myself to be able to say I’ve had a leading rider here,” admitted Lawson, now in charge of arguably his brightest talent in the saddle after 31 years as an agent. “Bejarano’s won it so many times, so you’re always trying to beat the guy who’s always there.”

Focused, analytical

Bill Shoemaker’s hands, Kieren Fallon’s physical strength and stamina, most top riders seem to possess a trait that separates them from the pack - one that observers can share among themselves, offering truth and reassurance. When it comes to Prat, talk of his greatest asset invariably veers towards his mental grit, of a meticulous eye for detail, and a cool resolve under pressure.

He’s a “real student”, said trainer Carla Gaines, for whom Prat won in February the G2 Arcadia Stakes aboard Bolo. “He’s very analytical about a race. He seems to know exactly where he needs to be.”

Illuminant’s trainer, Michael McCarthy, thinks it’s Prat’s grounded attitude that sets him apart. “He comes prepared. It’s not often you see him in a bad spot. He’s polished, and he reads a race very well.”

The pre-race prognostics evidently pay dividends, but what about afterwards? “He’s hard on himself,” admitted Lawson, about Prat’s self-dissection in the post-race autopsy room. Not that Lawson sees this is a negative.

“If you can self-criticize yourself, it’s better than someone else doing it,” he said. “If you can look at yourself and say, ‘I made a mistake,’ you come back from the mistake and improve from it next time.”

The rider himself tends to agree: “You have to always question yourself - each race is different, you can always make mistakes.”

A life in racing

So, from where did this unflappable resolve spring? Nature versus nurture is an age-old conundrum that in Prat seems typically unresolved. His father, a successful harness trainer south of Paris, was a “pretty strict” taskmaster, said Prat. “Now, it’s a lot better, but he used to be very tough on me.”

Helping with the family business, Prat learned the basics of horsemanship early. Though a career in harness racing was never on the cards for Prat like it was his brother, himself a harness driver.

“Harness racing is really hard. You’ve got to work really hard all day long. And you don’t make that much money.” Instead, Prat pivoted towards the Thoroughbreds. “I was light, small, so I thought, ‘I gotta try to be a jockey’.”

He rode first in pony races, then, when he was 14, moved to the Moulin a Vent jockey school in Chantilly, north of Paris. There, he spent the next two-plus years refining what he had already learned under his father’s tutelage – the nurture part of the equation.

Best memories

The Moulin a Vent school has a touch of the Dickensian boarding school about it, structured and orderly, with little time for idle hands to do the devil’s graft. Life was broken into blocks – 15 days at the school, 15 days working at a stable in Chantilly. The students were bussed there and back. Every evening, they returned to their dormitory at the school. They were given basic schooling, reading, writing and arithmetic. On weekends, they returned home.

“It’s one of my best memories,” said Prat of his time there, when his cohorts included fellow leading French riders Mickael Barzalona and Pierre-Charles Boudot. “We had some fun. We’d just started learning about life.”

For his formal apprenticeship, Prat headed to the stable of veteran trainer Tony Clout, in Chantilly. Clout, scion of one of France’s founding racing families, was instrumental in Prat’s award-winning apprenticeship run, with a temperament that complemented and, perhaps, blunted the harsher edges of Prat’s self-analytical character.

“He wasn’t tough, but I don’t think you need to be tough with me,” said Prat. “I’m tough on myself.”

For his part, Clout has been equally complimentary of his former apprentice, telling the Racing Post in 2012 that Prat has a natural feel for race-riding: “He’s very calm, he has a very cool head, and he has a good sense of timing.”

The French connection

That Prat chose the U.S. to re-launch his career in 2014 wasn’t without precedent, for he had first visited the country in 2009, laying the foundations of an annual winter pilgrimage to Santa Anita.

“Even from when he was a teenager without that much experience, he always gave very good feedback from the horses he rode,” said trainer Leonard Powell, Prat’s guardian during the young rider’s first foray to the States, when he was just 17.

“Garrett Gomez was the same,” Powell added. “Even if they win a race on a horse, they will come back and tell you things that we can improve, whereas a lot of guys if they win a race, they’ll just reply, [‘all good, all good’]”

That first winter, aside from earning the title of “chief carrot cutter” at the Powell barn of an afternoon, Prat snagged a handful of rides. And, during the winters that followed, he continued to pick up mounts here and there, including the occasional winner, all the while gaining invaluable experience of U.S. racing.

The Mandella connection

Then, after signing on the dotted line with the Wertheimers, Prat strengthened his ties with Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, long-time trainer for the brothers. The Mandella connection has proven critical in Prat’s recent career surge, for Mandella supplied Prat with his first Stateside graded stake victory - on Catch A Flight in the G3 Precisionist Stakes at Santa Anita in May last year

“Just immediately, you could see he was a polished professional,” Mandella told Ray Paulick in June this year. “He just had all the qualities you need, along with a great personality.”

The polish that Mandella and others notice stems from a thorough grounding back in France in a system better designed than that in the U.S. to nurture young talent in the saddle, said Prat.

“I’ve got a lot more experience than typical riders my age here,” he admitted. “For us [in France] it’s mush easier. You start learning at 14 over there. Over here, you got to learn more by yourself, much later, usually. It’s not easy.”

Injury and the future

Prat’s U.S. odyssey hasn’t been without incident. Last September, an awful spill at Los Alamitos racecourse left him with a punctured lung and five fractured vertebrae in the middle of his back, injuries that put him in a body cast for two months, and out of racing action for over three.

During his convalescence, Prat had one ambition: to be back in the saddle for the first day of Santa Anita’s 2015-16 winter meet, on December 26. That goal necessitated 30 hours of grueling physical therapy a week.

“He never once complained, never once said, ‘I don’t want to turn up, I’m tired’,” said Lawson. And, sure enough, when the afternoon of December 26 rolled around at Santa Anita, Prat emerged from the jock’s room in silks, helmet and boots. It didn’t take him long to rediscover the winning groove – four mounts, to be exact. Tellingly, Prat speaks of his swift comeback with a keen eye for imperfections.

“I was able to ride, but I wasn’t in great shape. When you ride every day, you have the reflexes, but when you break for three months, it’s not easy,” he said, admitting that the crushing fall only months before was in the back of his mind. “You think about it, for sure.”

Does is still hurt?

“It still bothers me – it’s not that bad but can be a little sore.”

Possible move east

As to the future, the big races figure prominently on his to-do list – the Kentucky Derby, the Breeders’ Cup races. If he continues to impress on the west coast, a move east — where the pots are typically larger — could fit into the agenda.

“Why not?” he said, in a manner that suggests he’s toyed with the idea for a while. “I’d have to be better here first, then we’ll see. I don’t want to say I’ll stay here forever. Maybe in two, three, four, five years I think I might say, ‘okay, now I want to do something else’.”

In the meantime, there’s the small matter of a first jockey’s title. I mentioned his lightning start to Del Mar’s summer meet (indeed, as of writing, he leads the race at Del Mar with 16 victories and $922,735 in the kitty).

Prat smiled, briefly. But in formulating a response, he was typically circumspect - echoes, perhaps, from those years of frustration in France, as well as his crushing fall last September, sobering hopes for this summer.

“Now, I’ve got to keep it up,” he said. “I’ve just got to be the most focused I can be.”

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