It hit him when two weeks had gone by and he hadn't won a single race. "When am I gonna win?" Marlon St. Julien, one of Lone Star Park's all-time leading jockeys, would ask himself. Then more weeks passed. And more. People started talking. Trainers backed off from hiring him to guide their horses. Everyone wants to ride a winner, and in a sport where a jockey's confidence and courage mean just about everything, St. Julien seemed like he'd lost it--the momentum that saw him crack the ranks of the nation's top money-winning riders in 2000, the success that got him a mount in the Kentucky Derby for the first time.
Worse still, St. Julien started second-guessing his own tactics. "I found myself in some races moving when I normally would sit--just trying too hard instead of letting it come," St. Julien says today. "I went from winning to like every day I wake up, 'I didn't win a race yet?' It did hit me kind of hard. I'm a very competitive person. I mean, I get upset when I'm winning races and go one night without winning.
"I just have that in me. I want to be the best, you know."
His 2001 slump would bottom out at 0-for-139 on the tough Kentucky racing circuit where he'd worked so hard to break in. The great Steve Cauthen abandoned American racing altogether after one such slump in the late 1970s, though he went on to become one of Europe's best riders. Lesser jockeys have found themselves busted down to low-dollar tracks, where they struggle to salvage the will to win, the ferocious drive that causes them to push a galloping, 1,100-pound beast through a sliver of space into daylight at exactly the right moment.
Through it all, St. Julien kept a good face. "I'm an excellent rider," he says, and he hung onto that with faith. Finally, just a day after making the decision to take the change-of-scenery approach and shift his gear to Chicago, St. Julien won a race at Louisville's Churchill Downs. Then he won two more. "Not bragging, but I had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'Marlon, I admire you for the way you handled things. You're still walking around, laughing and talking with people like everything is good.'"
Even Hall of Fame rider Pat Day took St. Julien aside and told him he'd held it together better than he ever could. St. Julien isn't so sure of that, since Day is one of racing's class acts, but he knew he'd passed one of the biggest tests of his life.
The test has led him back to Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie, the track where he made his big breakthrough in 1997 and 1998. St. Julien, 30, has returned to ride regularly at Lone Star after an absence of three years, hoping to regain the winning form that led him to attack some of the nation's top tracks and win in 1999 and 2000. During that period, when St. Julien ranked for a time among the nation's top 20 riders in winnings--the most important measure of a jockey's success, since it takes into account the quality of his competition--the Lafayette, Louisiana, native scored a couple of firsts: the first African-American jockey to ride in the Kentucky Derby in more than 75 years, when he finished seventh on Curule in 2000; the first African-American rider to score a mount in a Breeders Cup race, the World Series of Thoroughbred racing (he finished next to last in the juvenile fillies division). Add to that accomplishments such as finishing third in the standings at Keeneland's 2000 spring season, one of the country's most competitive meets; winning at Saratoga in New York, the most prestigious track in the United States; and getting featured in numerous media articles all over the country following a July 17, 1997, cover story about St. Julien in the Dallas Observer, which was the first newspaper in the country to profile him. "I started winning races, and people started liking the way I rode, and all of a sudden I was established there" in Kentucky, St. Julien says. "I just knew I was on my way."
So confident was he that he'd earned a place on the Kentucky circuit, St. Julien bought a home in Louisville two years ago for his wife, Denise, and their daughter Jasmin, 3, who's now been joined by 5-month-old Blaise.
Nothing in particular triggered the losing streak; the winning just stopped as quickly as it started in 1997, when St. Julien came out of nowhere to win Lone Star's first-ever race, the Premiere Stakes, on a 50-1 long shot. He ended up second that year in the jockey standings to famed Cajun rider Ronald Ardoin. "This past year was like a big tremendous fall for me," St. Julien says. "I just always tried to keep my head up and think positive and pray on it."
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St. Julien admits he really wanted to go to Kentucky's Keeneland this spring, where many of the Derby horses prep. But last year's slump continued through the beginning of 2002 at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where St. Julien saw his business go sour. He started winning in bunches again at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, then moved to the Dallas area for the start of Lone Star's meet on April 4. "I made a decision to come here, and I hope to get on a roll again--a major roll," St. Julien says. "Hopefully I can make it back to Kentucky and Saratoga."
The rider immediately re-established his dominance. He won a race on the first day, then took seven more during the next seven days of racing. As of Sunday night, he was tied for first in the standings with Curt C. Bourque. He's riding regularly for Lone Star's all-time leading trainer, Steve Asmussen, who has something in common with St. Julien: Both used Lone Star as their springboard to the big-time. Asmussen is now one of the nation's top trainers, and he'll have a contender in the Derby on May 4. Asmussen, for one, didn't doubt St. Julien during his slump. "He's a great athlete and very qualified as a jockey," he says. "He's always done fine for me."
Louis Coco, St. Julien's new agent, sums up the rider's success: "He's ridden good horses for good people, and everybody has nothing but good things to say about him. As long as it stays that way, he'll be successful."
St. Julien figures to contend for the riding title at Lone Star, but if you want to see him, you better catch him now. After this meet, which ends in July, St. Julien will probably take his success to a more lucrative racing circuit. He has no interest in racking up firsts as the nation's best African-American jockey; St. Julien's looking for another measure. "I want to be the leading rider in the country," he said last Thursday, shortly before driving home his second winner of the night.