The distance between the Los Angeles International Airport and the San Gabriel Valley, where Santa Anita Park sits, is about 30 miles.
As anyone who has driven in Southern California knows, it’s no jaunt.
The stopping and going, the glow of red tail lights, the inexplicable grind of too many people crammed onto a highway — that was the backdrop of the drive experienced by jockey Flavien Prat and his agent, Derek Lawson, in the middle of March last year.
But this drive was a little more uncomfortable.
Most times Prat heads out of town to ride in stakes around the country, Lawson picks his rider up from the airport. On this weekend Prat was returning from Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he rode in the Rebel Stakes (G2).
A horse named Omaha Beach won the Rebel at 4-1, but Prat wasn’t aboard, because Lawson took him off the colt to ride fourth-place finisher Gunmetal Gray, who went off at 10-1. Prat had ridden Omaha Beach in the colt’s first five starts—four unsuccessful maiden special weight tries, and his dominating maiden breaker six weeks before the Rebel.
“I was very upset,” Prat says with a chuckle now.
It’s easier to laugh about almost a year later, because seven weeks after that car ride, Lawson placed his hand on Prat’s shoulder at Churchill Downs, in front of the world watching through NBC’s cameras, and yelled, “You just won the Kentucky Derby!”
It got worse before it got better.
Lawson had his reasons to take off Omaha Beach, but they don’t really matter. It was a mistake. A mistake that happens in the wheeling-and-dealing world of the jockey-agent game, but a mistake nonetheless. And Prat never got the mount back from Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
Omaha Beach went on to win the Arkansas Derby (G1) — Prat finished fifth aboard Galilean in the race — and rolled into Churchill Downs as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
“I knew he was pissed off,” Lawson says. “I was pissed off, too. For the Derby, we could have gotten on Gray Magician, the (Todd) Pletcher horse (Cutting Humor), or Country House. I asked him, and he said, ‘Oh, just do what you want!’”
Lawson got his rider on Country House, one of the longest shots of the 20 qualified horses. The colt had come in third, 6 3/4 lengths behind Omaha Beach, in the Arkansas Derby.
“Nobody is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes,” Prat says. “I don’t always ride the best race, so he can get mad at me, too. At the end of the day, it’s horse racing. A lot can go wrong.”
Once the spotlight fully moved to Churchill, a lot went wrong — or right, depending on your perspective.
Omaha Beach scratched from the Derby because of an epiglottic entrapment, then the unthinkable happened: Maximum Security became the first horse in Kentucky Derby history to cross the wire first and be disqualified from victory.
Prat still doesn’t have a great way to put into words the emotions he experienced that day — from the painstaking wait as the stewards decided to disqualify Maximum Security to the surge after seeing Country House’s No. 20 moved up to first on the tote board. After all the hullabaloo, Country House, off at 65-1, was declared the winner.
Although his mount wasn’t affected by Maximum Security’s interference, Prat was one of two jockeys to lodge an objection, along with Jon Court, who rode Long Range Toddy.
“You win the Derby, which is a dream come true, but you didn’t cross the line first,” Prat says. “As of right now, it’s hard for me to explain. I can’t get the words to my feelings, but maybe in a few years, I’ll be able to explain.”
The Derby victory led to the greatest year of Prat’s career. His mounts earned more than $19.6 million in purses, he won at the highest rate of his career for a full season (23 percent) and took down 19 graded stakes, including six Grade 1 events.
The 27-year-old has sustained the success in 2020, with four graded stakes wins at his Santa Anita home base through Feb. 27.
Only five years ago the young man from France, who struggled to speak English and used Lawson as an interpreter, was asking Southern California trainers to give him a chance.
It didn’t take long for them to realize his talents. All they had to do was look at the tote board following his victories. In his first start of 2015, his first full year at Santa Anita, Prat rode a 41-1 shot to a third-place finish. A few days later his first win came at 30-1, and the prices kept coming.
He also had the support of Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella.
"Near every horse he's ridden has outrun its price," Mandella said at the time. "It speaks to any rider's talent. He's phenomenal — dirt, turf, short, long. I haven't found anything he doesn't do well. I think he's one of the stars of the future.
"It might not even be far in the future. He might be there now. I wouldn't hesitate to ride him in any race in the world."
The comment was prescient, but those kinds of prices no longer flash up on the tote board on a regular basis. Prat’s stature as one of the best riders in the country has afforded him premier mounts, and Santa Anita bettors will not often let his mounts go off at a price. The winning odds of his graded stakes victories this year are 4-5, 2-1, 1-5 and 3-5.
But the 2019 Breeders’ Cup was a unique test case for Mandella’s theory from years ago. With quality horses abound, large fields and often imperfect trips, riding talent is extremely important. Lawson got Prat a mount in all 13 Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita, and once again the rider outran his horses' price on nearly every one.
The easiest to remember was his win — a stunning 45-1 upset aboard Storm the Court in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — but he also missed an upset of eventual Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar by a head in the Breeders’ Cup Turf with an even crazier longshot, 51-1 United.
Prat’s mounts earned more than $3.7 million in purses mixing in placings with Donna Veloce (second at 2-1 in the Juvenile Fillies), Bellafina (second at 9-2 in the Filly & Mare Sprint), Blue Chipper (third at 16-1 in the Dirt Mile), Vasilika (second at 9-2 in the Filly & Mare Turf), Whitmore (third at 19-1 in the Sprint), Serengeti Empress (third at 10-1 in the Distaff) and Higher Power (third at 9-1 in the Classic).
“All the horses ran well,” Prat says. “When I look back I don’t think I could have done better. I mean, you can always do better, but I gave every horse a chance to win.”
A lot more has changed in Prat’s life than his on-track performance in those five years. Those around him say he has truly settled — from an ambitious, talented and sometimes frustrated young jockey to family man who can let the small things slide off his back.
“Quite interesting, this world that I live in right now with this young man, and I’m more impressed the more I work with him,” Lawson says. “He grew up. He became an adult. He’s married and has a kid. It’s not ‘me, me, me’ any more.”
Much of that can be attributed to his wife, Manon, an exercise rider who followed Prat to California from France. But their daughter, now 15 months old, may have had the most impact.
“It would be a lot different if I was on my own,” Prat says. “The fact that I came to the States with my wife is a big help. It went pretty well when I started riding here, but when everything doesn’t go well, it’s good to have support.
“After a bad day, I used to get really mad. But now you go home, and you can’t be mad, because your daughter is happy and healthy.”
Prat also received some crucial — albeit terrifying — perspective during his first year of riding in California. In September of 2015 he fractured multiple vertebrae during a spill at Los Alamitos.
“It was a scary time,” Lawson remembers. “All that work could have been extinguished. When I got to the ER, I grabbed his foot to see if he would react. He flinched, and I thought, ‘OK, good.’”
Prat was in a back brace for nearly two months and returned to racing at the end of December. The time off, limited to resting and physical therapy, was frustrating.
“It was hard, because it was the first time I really got hurt and I stopped riding,” Prat says. “I was in the hospital for a week, and that had never happened before. I realized life can be short and I have to enjoy it. … Anything I like to do, it’s pretty much a physical activity. I wake up every day at 6 to work horses, and then going to the races — I was in a rhythm and lifestyle, where I was busy every day — then all the sudden, nothing.”
But he channeled that frustration in a positive way, with Lawson’s encouragement, and began to take English lessons — four hours a day for six weeks. Now he’s one of the most engaging, thoughtful riders in the jockeys’ room and particularly doesn’t like when he is misquoted.
“He wants to be quoted exactly as he said it, because he thinks about what he is saying. He’ll look at the track notes and the newspaper and say, ‘I didn’t say it that way.’ I’ve had to make a few calls,” Lawson says with a laugh.
So, after a Derby win, Breeders’ Cup success, and plenty of money rolling in on a regular basis, what’s left for goals?
“There are so many things to be done,” Prat says. “I haven’t even done half of what guys like Mike Smith or Frankie Dettori have done. What I’ve done as of right now is pretty much nothing. When you win those big races, you just want to win them again and again. It’s like a drug.”
Then there’s that Derby thing. Winning was nice, but it didn’t feel like winning totally. He wants to cross the wire first.
His Derby prospects for 2020 are solid, even if this week’s mount in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park aboard Dennis’ Moment might be temporary; the colt’s regular rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., is in Saudi Arabia to ride Mucho Gusto in the $20 million Saudi Cup. Prat also has Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) winner Thousand Words, Storm the Court, and an up-and-coming colt named Great Power as potential Derby mounts.
“Last year I gave up Omaha Beach to ride Country House, so I’ll throw something up against the wall and hopefully something will stick,” Lawson jokes. “One of the first things he said to me after the Derby was, ‘We have to win this race next year, but I want to be in front.’”
Jeremy Balan is an Eclipse Award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Southern California.