By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Saddling this longshot was an obscure trainer with an unpronounceable name: K.C. Wojciechowski. And the jockey, the man entrusted with delivering this cranky beast to the winner's circle, was a virtual no-name.
Marlon St. Julien had ridden well at small tracks in his native Louisiana. But Evangeline Downs and Delta Downs are bush-league compared to the competition he'd face in the Premier Stakes--the first race ever held at Lone Star Park. The 25-year-old dressed in the jocks' room alongside such accomplished riders as Don Pettinger, Tim Doocy, Corey Lanerie, and the legendary Cajun, Ronald Ardoin.
No sane bettor would have wagered the grocery money on I Are Sharp in the April 17 stakes race. Even Grand Prairie's neophytes agreed, sending him off at odds of 50-1, the second-longest shot in the field. Worse yet, the gelding drew the 14 "hole"--the last slot in the starting gate. This posed a considerable disadvantage: With only a short distance from the gate to the first turn, any horse caught on the outside of the pack would probably lose too much ground to stand a chance of winning.
Not even I Are Sharp's trainer held out much hope. Two days earlier, when K.C. Wojciechowski drew the 14 hole at a special luncheon for the $50,000 Premier Stakes, she remarked that "at least I had a nice lunch."
But Marlon St. Julien had beaten the odds before. He'd developed the poise and skill to manage a hard ride. Though the racetrack's ethos of toughness keeps him from making an issue of it, St. Julien is black. For a jockey in thoroughbred racing, this is a hindrance. The day he slipped into his saddle atop I Are Sharp, there were no prominent black American thoroughbred race riders in the country--and there haven't been any for more than a century. (Quarterhorse race fans can point to the success of Charles McMahon, a black rider, in their sport.)
St. Julien may be the man who changes that. Although he's not there yet, his remarkable string of victories during Lone Star Park's maiden season have positioned him for a chance to make the big time in thoroughbred racing. Maybe--if things keep breaking his way--he'll reach the point where being a black man in a white man's race simply doesn't matter anymore.
St. Julien's family, when coaxed, will tell you what his color has meant: Marlon didn't get the breaks less talented white riders did. Some owners, they suspected, simply didn't want a black jockey riding their expensive bloodstock--didn't think he had it "between the ears," as one of his uncles puts it. And regardless of what a trainer might think of a rider, the man paying the bills gets the final say.
For whatever reasons, St. Julien languished for years at Louisiana's minor tracks, winning hundreds of races without ever getting that big break.
He admits he defeated himself at times. He grew "paranoid" about his color, he says, wondering why some of the top trainers wouldn't ride him. Wondering why a younger friend and former schoolmate, jockey Robbie Albarado, graduated to bigger tracks sooner than he did.
But lots of folks noticed St. Julien's talent. Even as a 17-year-old apprentice jockey, or "bug boy"--so called because of the asterisk, resembling a gnat, attached to a novice rider's name in the program--horsemen admired his riding. St. Julien rides with his back parallel to the ground, perfectly balanced in the saddle, not bobbing and rolling around, disrupting the horse's stride. He looks natural on a horse. As the jocks say, he has a "good seat."
St. Julien also has toughness--and perfect timing. He knows how to "rate" a horse, holding him back so he won't burn away all his speed early in the race. He knows how to relax a speed-crazy thoroughbred, and that takes intuition: Some horses react to strength--a sharp hold on the reins--while others respond to gentleness, even a tactic as simple as speaking soothing words in his ear.
It got frustrating, though, exhausting his energy booting home cheap horses at Delta Downs in Vinton, Louisiana, where the entire purse was sometimes a paltry $1,400. For risking his life, St. Julien would take home his share of the winner's prize--a miserable $86.
By this spring, St. Julien had begun to make a dent in the riders' standings at New Orleans' Fair Grounds, a much classier track than Delta. But the untried turf of Lone Star Park beckoned. After the Fair Grounds' meet ended in March, St. Julien did what a lot of people have done when prejudice got in the way. He left his Louisiana home.
The young rider packed up his 40-foot trailer and journeyed to Grand Prairie with his wife, dog, and tiny racing saddle, headed for a date with I Are Sharp.
Unless he's ailing, a thoroughbred will generally give his all in a race. But a horse can't read the Daily Racing Form for tips on strategy, and has no idea where they've stuck the finish line.