This is not merely the account of the agent. I have been texting with
him and talking to him on the phone since January and following and
chronicling every step of this, the ups and downs, as it happened. It is a behind the scenes look at a jockey and his agent's long arduous
journey to the Derby and their pursuit of the Derby dream and finding
the right mount, in this case a last-minute 65-1 shot.
Every January, well before the roses are in bloom, jockeys and their agents begin the arduous and often times stressful task of finding the Kentucky Derby winner. It is a pressure-packed four months, first finding a horse early on, then hoping he’s good enough to continue on the Derby trail, then hoping he stays sound, then hoping the trainer sticks with them and doesn’t start shopping around for a bigger name jockey.
All the while, the agent has to keep his eyes and ears open for potential back-up mounts just in case. He also has to maintain good relationships with all the trainers because you never know when he is going to have a live mount. Many times you will have two horses with equal talent, and if they go their separate ways you’re in good shape, letting the horses decide your Derby mount for you. But on some occasions they will wind up in the same race and that is when the agent starts having sleepless nights, not so much getting it right, but making sure he doesn’t get it wrong. There is nothing more disheartening, frustrating, and gut-wrenching than seeing the horse you didn’t choose go on and win the Derby.
Some riders, like Joel Rosario and Drayden Van Dyke, are in the enviable position of having latched onto top-class 2-year-olds, in their case champion Game Winner and grade 1 winner Improbable, respectively, both for Derby guru Bob Baffert. Van Dyke eventually would lose the mount to a bigger name, Irad Ortiz Jr. The young rider also had a brilliant undefeated colt named Instagrand in his back pocket just in case Jerry Hollendorfer was able to get him ready for the Derby.
French-born Flavien Prat and his agent Derek Lawson started off the year with three possibilities still in the unproven stage, and two proven horses. Prat was the regular rider of all five horses and it was Lawson’s job to sort it all out. The proven horses were the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Gunmetal Gray, who was second to Game Winner in the grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes and fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and the Dick Mandella-trained Extra Hope, who was fourth in the Bob Hope Stakes and third in the grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity. The three unproven horses were a promising maiden named Omaha Beach also from the Mandella barn; an impressive 9 3/4-length maiden winner named Gray Magician, trained by Peter Miller, who started off the year by finishing a close fourth in the Sham Stakes; and a California-bred named Galilean, who had romped by nine lengths in the state-bred King Glorious Stakes, running the mile in a sharp 1:35 flat. The son of Uncle Mo also was trained by Hollendorfer, so Prat had two shots from the same barn.
The list quickly shrunk when Prat and Lawson chose to ride Gray Magician in the Jan. 5 Sham Stakes over Gunmetal Gray, who rallied in the stretch to win by one length under Mike Smith, with Gray Magician finishing fourth. Wrong decision number one, but still way to early to fret over. There were bigger fish to fry as they say. Now it was down to four. On Jan. 31, in a one-mile allowance race, they chose to ride Extra Hope over Gray Magician and scored a 3 1/4-length victory in a snappy 1:34 3/5. A good result, but Gunmetal Gray and Gray Magician looked to be out of the mix as potential Derby mounts.
Then things started to really change. When Omaha Beach broke his maiden on Feb. 2, romping by nine lengths in the slop, blazing the seven furlongs in 1:21 flat, he jumped right to the head of the list, soon to be followed two weeks later by Galilean after he cruised home an easy winner of the Cal Cup Derby.
February would be a quiet month, except for a trip to Laurel to be reunited with Gray Magician in the Miracle Wood Stakes, in which he finished second to an up-and-coming star named Alwaysmining. Omaha Beach was scheduled to run next in a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on March 1, but the colt came out of his maiden score with a minor quarter crack that was patched up and all looked good. But rather than run back on March 1 it was decided to give the colt some extra time and instead point for the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16. Everything was still on schedule, but when the March 9 San Felipe Stakes was cancelled it resulted in a mass exodus from California to the Rebel Stakes. Now what had looked to be a fairly easy spot became a hotbed of talent with Game Winner and Improbable both detoured there, along with Gunmetal Gray, Extra Hope, and most important, Galilean. Prat had ridden four of the starters.
That left Lawson with an all-important and perplexing decision. Does he ride Omaha Beach, who had just suffered a quarter crack and had never won going two turns, but had a world of ability, or Galilean, who had won three Cal-bred stakes, the last two at a mile and 1 1/16 miles, and was being compared to another Cal-bred, California Chrome, who had taken the same path.
Lawson, after conferring with Prat, decided to go with Galilean, who he felt was more of a certainty, having the pedigree, having already won going two turns, and not having a quarter crack hanging over their heads.
But with so many horses now heading to the Rebel, there was still a ray of hope that there would be no conflict at all. If Oaklawn decided to split the race there was a 50-50 chance Omaha Beach and Galilean would draw into different divisions and they would get to ride both horses.
Lawson was given the impression that Mandella was going to wait until entries to name a rider on Omaha Beach, but when Mike Smith was available he named him to ride. So Prat lost Omaha Beach for the second time. As it turned out, both colts did indeed draw into separate divisions and Prat wound up back on Gunmetal Gray in the other division, while Smith rode both Mandella horses, Omaha Beach and Extra Hope.
On the Monday before the Rebel, Lawson summed up the life of a jockey's agent: "Heading to pick up Flavien and off to Los Al to work Galilean at 5:30. Who lives like this?" In addition to the Derby, there was the pressure of lining up top mounts daily with Prat in a hot battle with Joel Rosario for leading rider at Santa Anita.
So Prat’s Derby chances now rested squarely on the shoulders of Galilean, who finished third behind Long Range Toddy and Improbable, while Omaha Beach ran a gutsy race, holding off Game Winner’s late charge to win by a nose.
It appeared as if they had chosen the wrong horse, but there was still time to make amends in the Arkansas Derby. Meanwhile, Baffert decided to take Drayden Van Dyke off Improbable and named Jose Ortiz for the Arkansas Derby even though Ortiz was the rider for Tacitus. Lawson had another ace up his sleeve in the form of a Doug O'Neill-trained colt named Stubbins, winner of his last three starts, including a nine-length romp in the Pasadena Stakes. Prat would be riding the son of Morning Line in the rich UAE Derby and Lawson felt he had big shot "to shock the world." But the colt would finish an uninspired sixth and was put on the shelf.
Prat still had other possibilities. Hollendorfer named Prat to ride Instagrand in the Santa Anita Derby following an excellent third in the Gotham Stakes under Javier Castellano. Instagrand ran a game race to finish third behind Roadster and Game Winner, but he no longer was considered a Kentucky Derby horse.
So everything was riding on Galilean at Oaklawn. When he could do no better than fifth, beaten 10 lengths by, guess who, Omaha Beach, who now became the Kentucky Derby favorite, Prat was not a happy camper. He had the Derby favorite in his grasp, but let it slip away, and now was in danger of having no Derby mount at all. Galilean was out of the picture.
A little incident had taken place before the Arkansas Derby that appeared to be of little significance at the time. Bill Mott, for whom Prat had only ridden one time last year in a maiden race, offered him the mount on Country House in the Arkansas Derby on the recommendation of several from the (co-owners) Foxwood family team and Alex Solis who were fans of Prat. But they were committed to Galilean. So just put that in your back pocket for now.
One morning Baffert had casually
mentioned to Lawson if he was interested in riding Improbable. Prat was a big fan of the horse, but before they
had time to even think about it, WinStar’s Elliott Walden named Irad Ortiz
Jr. on the colt.
There was still an opening for a big mount, as Mike Smith, who won the Santa Anita Derby aboard Roadster, had a choice now between the improving Baffert colt and Omaha Beach. Prat and Lawson waited with bated breath for his decision. When he decided on Omaha Beach, they had lost the chance to ride the colt for the third time. But now Roadster was open and Prat was a logical choice. But one of Roadsters owners had a relationship with fellow Frenchman Florent Geroux and that ended any chance to ride that colt.
There were now just a few mounts left for the Derby and Lawson thought he had a great chance to land on Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff for Todd Pletcher and the Wertheimer brothers.
Prat had been under contract in France as the number two rider for the Wertheimers behind Olivier Peslier. When Peslier left, it was assumed Prat would take over as number one rider. But trainer Andre Fabre hired Maxime Guillon as number one rider for the Wertheimers, leaving Prat at number two.
In stepped Lawson, whose mother was French and who spoke the language fluently. He called Prat and told him, “Flavien, you do not have to be number two to anybody. You come to the United States and I will make you the number one rider in California.” After talking to his parents Prat agreed, and Lawson arranged to get him a five-year P1 visa (for the purpose of athletic competition), but only under the stipulation he gets one for his girlfriend as well, which he was able to do. So Prat was off to America.
What attracted Lawson to the French riders was that they all copy their style after Cash Asmussen, who was so successful there for years. As a result, the French jockeys ride American style, which is much lower than the English and Irish riders.
So, as the 11th hour approached, Lawson felt he had a good shot to ride Spinoff because of Prat’s relationship with the Wertheimers. Spinoff had become available when John Velazquez decided to ride Code of Honor in the Derby. Pletcher looked as if he was going to play the waiting game before naming a rider, but before Lawson had a chance to get in touch with his contact for the Wertheimers and suggest Prat, Pletcher named Manny Franco to ride the colt.
So, now Prat and Lawson were down to their old mount Gray Magician, who had run second in the UAE Derby, and the other Pletcher horse, Cutting Humor, winner of the Sunland Derby. And finally there was Country House, who still had no rider. At this point Prat told Lawson to choose any horse he wanted. He was still upset over losing Omaha Beach, who was now the big horse and sure favorite.
Lawson kept waiting to hear from Pletcher about Cutting Humor, but there was nothing and time seemed to be running out. There was also no word from Mott, who was a little leery about Lawson because of his reputation for taking off horses to get on better mounts.
On April 24, Laweson texted, "I'm down to whoever calls first I will ride. We really don't care. Our weekend begins and ends with the (Kentucky) Oaks." It was the top-class filly and likely favorite Bellafina that really had them excited.
One morning while Lawson was driving to have breakfast his phone rang and it was Mott. But after one ring it went dead. Lawson called him back and asked if he was calling him or was that a butt dial. Mott said he wanted to talk to him about riding Multiplier in the Old Forester Turf Classic and Country House in the Kentucky Derby. But there was one stipulation. He told Lawson, “I need to have you write it down in a text that you agree to ride Multiplier in the Old Forester and Country House in the Kentucky Derby. You’re not waiting for Pletcher anymore, right? I need an answer right now.”
Lawson replied, “Sir, we are riding Country House for you.” Mott told him to put that all in a text and send it to him. So Flavien Prat, after going through Gunmetal Gray twice, Extra Hope, Omaha Beach three times, Galilean, Gray Magician, Instagrand, Stubbins, possibly Improbable, possibly Spinoff, possible Roadster, and possibly Cutting Humor, winds up on 65-1 shot Country House.
But the drama was far from over. Three days before the Derby a tremendous weight was lifted off Prat and Lawson when Omaha Beach was scratched from the Derby with an entrapped epiglottis. They may not have landed on the winner, but at least they didn’t have that albatross hanging around their neck any longer.
The rest, as they say, is history. Country House runs the race of his life to finish second to Maximum Security.
After pulling up, Prat passed the huge screen on the backstretch and stopped and waited to see if the stewards were going to post the inquiry sign. He felt he had he been pushed out a little by the chain reaction inside him caused by the winner. When he saw there was no inquiry sign posted he told the outrider while galloping back that he wanted to claim foul on Maximum Security, knowing full well that it was an even bigger longshot than his 65-1 odds. But he wanted the stewards to at least look at what happened inside him.
As they waited on the racetrack while the stewards deliberated, Lawson told Prat, “Hey man, we’re still going to make a ton of money even if we don’t get the win. We’re gonna be second in the Kentucky Derby and we have our Belmont horse.”
As Lawson said, “Flavien goes down in Kentucky Derby lore. He called the shot. All he wanted to do was have the stewards look at it.”
They looked, they saw, and Prat and Lawson conquered. Their long, often stressful, roller coaster ride on the road to the Kentucky Derby was over. Omaha Beach was now but a memory. History has proven that the garland of roses can be draped over the back of any horse. And who gets to sit atop that horse often is determined by a series of fateful events. Prat and Lawson proved that. They grasped at that last straw when all seemed lost and struck gold. Disqualification or no disqualification, they are in the history books forever.