The horse had an ungainly name, and was a tough ride besides. I Are Sharp was rank and willful, with a bad habit of picking some inopportune moment during a race to take a breather. A jockey who didn't figure that out might think his mount had run out of horsepower.
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.
A good rider coaxes the best out of a good horse. Hall of fame jockey Chris McCarron proved that with a brilliant ride on Touch Gold in this year's Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. McCarron knew his main rival, Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, tended to relax when out front. But if Silver Charm spotted a horse beside him, challenging for the lead, he'd muster every last ounce of strength and somehow push his nose in front at the wire.
McCarron capitalized perfectly on Silver Charm's quirks. Coming from behind in the stretch, McCarron wheeled his horse well to the outside and swept past his arch-rival right at the finish line. Silver Charm's competitive juices didn't get a chance to kick in. He never even saw Touch Gold.
No question about it, McCarron outrode Silver Charm's jockey, fellow hall-of-famer Gary Stevens. And it meant the difference in a contest between two outstanding, well-matched colts.
To win the much smaller Premier Stakes, Marlon St. Julien would have to turn in a riding performance just as masterful. I Are Sharp did the dirty work, of course, running in typically neurotic mode. The instant the gate sprung open, the horse lurched out and skittered to the rail, pressing against the bit so hard that St. Julien was pulled nearly straight in the saddle. On the backstretch, running third, the jockey knew he had to calm his horse down or I Are Sharp would spend all his energy well before the finish of the 1 1/16th-mile race.
"Whoa, whoa," St. Julien cooed, sitting still, releasing the reins just slightly so his horse wouldn't fight as hard for his head.
I Are Sharp sensed his rider's cues. He eased back, settling into a comfortable stride, hanging just behind the leaders as they approached the final turn.
Then the horse played his little pony trick. St. Julien remembered K.C.'s instructions: "He's going to take a break somewhere in the race. Don't get worried. Just believe me, he'll take that break."
And so the horse did. On the last turn, St. Julien's mount began slipping behind the leaders. The jock popped him with a right-hand whip. I Are Sharp reacted with a short burst of speed--but nothing more. They were losing ground, with the finish line now in view.
St. Julien refused to panic. He calculated the distance to the wire, knew he still had a chance. He deftly switched the whip to his left and smacked hard.
I Are Sharp took off immediately--switching leads, zigging down the stretch like a tracer bullet. He passed the two front-runners and was still pulling away when he crossed the finish.
As St. Julien jogged his horse back to the riders' scale, he felt "an unexplainable feeling--it really made me feel good." It was like he'd won the Derby, he'd later say. The Premier Stakes wasn't the richest race he'd won--though his $3,000 share of the purse sure beat 86 bucks--but it would turn out to be the most important of his career.
That's because everyone loves a winner. Regardless of his color.
That day in the winner's circle, cameramen and reporters pressed toward the unknown jockey, riffling through their programs to see who this guy was. St. Julien, who'd brought home the dark horse, stammered a few words into a microphone.
His brief interview made it onto that evening's newscast--along with the sound of a woman's high-pitched scream just as I Are Sharp hit the wire.
You'd be squealing, too, if you were one of the few holding a two-dollar win ticket suddenly worth
Today, he's earned himself a nickname: Saint.
Marlon St. Julien hauled in the longshot on Lone Star Park's opening day. But his Premier Stakes victory wasn't a fluke: He went on to win five races during that first week of racing.
As the wins added up, he started snagging better mounts--leading to more victories. Now, with only 10 days of racing left in Lone Star's 73-day inaugural meet, St. Julien ranks second in wins with 73, only six behind perennial champion Ronald Ardoin. The way he's been riding lately, St. Julien has a decent chance of catching Ardoin, who began riding in unsanctioned races at the age of seven near his hometown of Carencro, Louisiana.
St. Julien's mounts have already won well over $1 million in purses at Lone Star; the jockey's share is about $100,000. He also boasts a fine win percentage of 19--which is roughly equivalent to a baseball player hitting .300 at the end of September.
Last month, Lone Star honored St. Julien with an invitation to ride in its $100,000 National All-Star Jockey Championship. He rode for points alongside the winners of 12 Kentucky Derbys, including his heroes Gary Stevens--who won the contest--and Chris McCarron, who placed second. Even though St. Julien's best mount was scratched, he held his own among the hall-of-fame riders.
Trainers are lavish in their praise of the courteous, soft-spoken jockey from Lafayette, Louisiana. "I find him the exact same as he was in New Orleans," K.C. Wojciechowski says. "He has not let it go to his head. He's very, very respectful; very, very kind; and a very, very hard worker. He's polite, not at all foul-mouthed. He's just an outstanding individual. The more he wins, the more confident he gets.
"I've never heard a person say a bad word about him," she adds. "He'll ride an expensive horse or an inexpensive horse the same way. And I'll put him on two-year-olds [the youngest thoroughbreds allowed to race]--he rode some of the rankest horses at Delta Downs. He came up the hard way. He doesn't fear anything."
Where Marlon St. Julien comes from, everyone gets in on the racing game. Lafayette is horse-crazy. From two-dollar bettors to wealthy bloodstock buyers, rich and poor gather together four days a week at Evangeline Downs, or out in the country, near Cade, Carencro, or Breaux Bridge, at the informal "bush" tracks for which Louisiana's Cajun country is known.
The competition is so steep that southern Louisiana has become known as the premier breeding ground for top jockeys--like Panama and Puerto Rico were in the '60s and '70s. Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux, Ronald Ardoin, Shane Sellers, and Randy Romero all got their start at Lafayette's little Evangeline Downs.
Marlon's mother loved watching the ponies there--where admission is still $1--and often brought along her oldest son. He'd perch at the rail near the finish line and tell anyone who'd listen, "I'm gonna be a jockey."
Cynthia Sargent didn't take her son's declarations seriously at first. A natural athlete blessed with speed and dexterity, Marlon also loved football, baseball, and track, and never let his diminutive frame pose an impediment to sports.
Then she walked into her son's bedroom one day and found him squatting like a jockey, riding the headboard of his bed. He was clucking to his "mount," sweating and swatting with a whip fashioned from green twigs and tape. If she needed any other clue about Marlon's new obsession, she got it when he learned to play the "riders up" riff on his trumpet.
"I thought it was like a phase he was going through," recalls Sargent, a 46-year-old Head Start teacher. "But as time went by, I could see it wasn't."
After his mother divorced his father, Even St. Julien, when Marlon was 11, he began spending much of his free time with his uncles, Mark, James, and John Gee, who raced a few thoroughbreds as a hobby. Since the men were all too big to ride, they eventually turned to tiny Marlon for help exercising the horses.
Early on, he showed an aptitude for horsemanship--and hard work. "He enjoyed the animal as well as the riding," recalls James Gee, 39. "He loved the animal's beauty and power. And it's not like he just started out with riding. He'd clean out the stalls, empty the manure, help with the feed, refresh the water, and rub the horse down. He did the whole nine yards."
A retired jockey and family friend, Lee Felix, taught Marlon some of the intricacies of race riding: how to hold the reins while breaking from the gate; how to cross paths with another horse in full stride, leaving enough clearance so they don't clip heels; and how to get a horse to change leads--the
left or right front leg he leads with when he gallops, which is essential for conserving energy for the stretch run.
St. Julien eventually became the Gee brothers' regular exercise rider, even tagging along with them on occasional surreptitious visits to the bush tracks, where the men would test their horses to see if they were ready for Evangeline Downs. (Marlon's father says he found out about the bush-track forays, but pretended not to know.)
St. Julien rode in a few races there, too. But he wasn't ready to devote himself to race riding just yet. He had to get football out of his system.
It seems a bit funny today that a 109-pound guy would have to surrender his dreams of football stardom. But as a high school sophomore, Marlon was determined to beat his genetic inheritance. Even St. Julien recalls taking his son to the nutrition store to buy $100 worth of nutrition supplements.
"I had so many weightlifting and body-building magazines--I was obsessed with that," Marlon says. "I had a cabinet full of amino acids, different vitamins, weight-gain formulas. Only thing I didn't take was steroids."
Despite all that expensive, ill-tasting crud, Marlon did not grow beyond 5 feet 4 inches. And his weight peaked at a not exactly intimidating 142.
Cynthia Sargent didn't know which was worse: watching her child get smashed up on the football field ("Those big boys will run over you!" she warned Marlon), or seeing him bob like a wind sock on the back of 1,200-pound galloping thoroughbred.
Though his father recalls watching his son play strong safety at a spring scrimmage, letting out a triumphant squeal after he'd popped a receiver as hard as he could, both he and Marlon knew professional football wasn't a realistic goal.
So Even St. Julien focused on steering his son toward college. It seemed like a reasonable course for Marlon, an honors student.
But Marlon had already plotted his future. He quit football during his junior year and began losing all the weight he'd gained. He took on the intense, almost uncanny focus he exhibits today.
At 6 a.m., he'd hitch a ride to training tracks on the outskirts of town, where he'd gallop horses for his uncles or Don Cormier, Evangeline Downs' leading trainer. His occasional reward was a $20 bill stuffed in an envelope.
By 7:45 a.m., the 16-year-old would have gone home, showered, pulled on his school clothes, and showed up for class. His mother is still proud that he never missed a day of school.
His father realized the boy had established his destiny when Marlon showed up at his door one day. "All of a sudden, he'd shrunk!" Even St. Julien recalls with a chuckle.
"He takes everything serious," he adds. "He was always like that. He never got in no trouble. Never messed with no dope, nothing like that. I'm real proud of him."
When Marlon was 17, Don Cormier helped him get his apprentice jockey's license. No one rushed to offer him a mount in a race. But as always, Marlon's determination paid off. Even though he wasn't scheduled to ride, he'd suit up each racing day and sit in the jocks' room at Evangeline, hoping for a break. And one day he got it. A rider got sick or failed to show up, and Marlon inherited the mount. He ran a strong second.
Within a week, Marlon rode his first winner--Sadie's Sensation on April 14, 1989. Several family members were on hand to crowd into the winner's circle photo.
They'd be next to little Marlon just a week later for a far less celebratory occasion.
The latest issue of The Jockey News, the official magazine of the Jockey's Guild--the union for race riders--lists two pages of "Accidents & Mishaps" from the previous few months. It's a disturbing reminder of how dangerous race riding can be.
Patricia Cooksey's April 6 report reads like this: "Horse broke down, rider thrown, kicked, trampled, back & shoulder injuries." Some unlucky dude named Mark Rosenthal gets two entries, two weeks apart: "Mount went down after clipped heels or bad step, rider dragged, thrown," and "While untacking, horse stepped on jockey's foot."
Elsewhere in the magazine, the best-ever female jockey, Julie Krone, is pictured astride a therapeutic wooden horse--the only mount she saw during a long recovery from a particularly nasty spill a few years back.
Such mishaps are a fact of life for jockeys. Marlon says that in his days as an exercise rider, he "bought a lot of property--I mean falling. Falling on different tracks. But I was still interested in riding."
His singular focus wavered just once. Two weeks into his race-riding career, he got in a horrible spill at Evangeline Downs.
It was a rough, rainy day. By post time that evening, the sun had begun to peek out. Mark Gee, now 38, recalls what happened. "I was going up the steps to the grandstand, and by the time I got there, all I saw was six horses on the backside, and I knew 12 were in the race.
"Then I saw horses and jockeys all over the ground on the first turn. I saw them picking up Marlon on a stretcher--I saw his left arm fall to the side. It just flopped."
Marlon remembers only part of what happened. "My horse broke dead last, and maybe the crowd spooked him or something, because we got to the first turn and he just took off with me," he says. "I was trying to control him, and he bolted out. I remember clipping a horse's heels."
His horse went down, and family members saw Marlon tumble toward the rail, where he was run over by two or three horses, leaving him briefly unconscious. A woman ran onto the track and pulled the sand from Marlon's mouth and nose.
The family reassembled in the emergency room at Lafayette General Hospital. Marlon had come to in excruciating pain. He'd fractured his sternum and several ribs, lacerated his liver, and ruptured his spleen.
Marlon looked at his mother and uncles gathered around him, and said, "I'm not doing this anymore. I'm going on to college to do something else."
Just a few days later, though, Marlon caught a segment of "Down the Stretch," a TV program featuring national racing highlights, in his hospital room. "I'm going back at it," he said.
After an unusually fast recovery, Marlon returned to riding that summer. While other kids were slinging burgers to earn high school date money, Marlon was pulling in $1,000 to $1,500 a week as a leading apprentice jockey at Evangeline Downs.
Even so, he kept a promise he'd made to his mother and graduated from high school on time in 1990.
Denise St. Julien, Marlon's wife of three years, attributes her husband's success to his extraordinary determination.
The years after that first win saw steady, incremental gains in wins and reputation. St. Julien kept riding at Evangeline and Delta Downs for four years, twice finishing second in the jockeys' standings at the Vinton "bull ring," the name given to racing ovals less than a mile in circumference.
Delta's tight, treacherous turns teach a jockey to break fast and position himself early. Speed always rules at the bull rings.
St. Julien knew he possessed ample talent. But he didn't break out of his comfort zone till 1995, when he first started riding at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He didn't win too many races at first, and usually rode longshots. But he didn't give up. And over the next two years, trainers began picking up on St. Julien's special assets.
"I felt he was honest," says K.C. Wojciechowski, who put St. Julien on some of her horses at the Fair Grounds. "He gives you a good try, and he listens."
Michelle Mullins, a Lone Star trainer, watches St. Julien and detects some of the qualities derived from experience at Louisiana's bush tracks. "If you can ride there, you can ride anywhere," she says. "First of all, you've got to save your hide. And if you've got that kind of nerve and skill, you can ride anywhere.
"Marlon isn't afraid of anything," she adds. "But he's got good judgment. He's not gonna do something stupid and get your horse hurt."
At 8:30 on a Wednesday morning, Michelle Mullins' long legs are moving like a metronome ticking an allegro furioso. The young trainer is keeping stride with an unraced, as-yet-unnamed colt owned by George Strait, being ridden to its morning workout by Marlon St. Julien.
This is St. Julien's routine every morning except Monday, his day off, when he's been known to take 20-hour fishing trips. All but the most established riders have to hustle mounts, exercising horses they hope to ride later in races. Beginning as early as 6 a.m., St. Julien will gallop six or seven horses a day--for which he's paid nothing.
As Mullins rattles off staccato instructions, St. Julien calms the young thoroughbred, who's tossing his head, pulling on the bit--and he's still only walking.
"God, Marlon," she says. "He looks so good. He's dappled all over his rear end. He's just a baby."
Climbing into the trainer's perch on the backstretch, Mullins badgers her male colleagues for a stopwatch. Her requests are insistent, even aggressive. She doesn't give up till a man surrenders his timepiece.
It takes that kind of persistence to make it as a woman in the training business, though Mullins is loath to say it. "I hate to play that card," she says matter-of-factly. "I don't like to think about that. I just do the best I can and play the card I'm dealt."
She comes closest to pointing the finger at her sport's traditional prejudices when the subject turns to St. Julien--and color. "Now that he's riding so well, I don't see it as a hindrance," she says. "But I'm sure that he may tell you it's a hindrance starting out. It's like being a woman and starting out. I'm sure he's felt the sting before, but his talent's prevailing."
On the track, St. Julien guides the unnamed colt through a red-hot gallop. "Go-go-go," Mullins says. "Now he's in front. He's flying."
After the workout, she paces beside St. Julien all the way back to the barn. "He's really something special," she says about the chestnut colt.
The two exchange glances--of empathy. And mutual respect.
Later in the day, St. Julien prepares himself in the jockey's quarters for the first race. He grasps the gold crucifix around his neck, kneels in a corner, and prays. He recites the Lord's Prayer. He prays for protection--for himself, fellow riders, even the horses.
That morning, he'd studied the Daily Racing Form in the track kitchen, searching for clues about his competition. Looking at the Form, he can identify the front-runners and stretch runners, as well as the classy mounts, the outclassed, and the "cheap speed."
In the first race, he places second on a longshot--nearly catching the winner at the wire.
Then, in the seventh race on Lone Star's turf course, he scores. Since the track's dirt and turf courses both favor speed, St. Julien never allows himself to fall too far back of the pack. Come-from-behind horses seldom win at Lone Star.
His win on Go Ballistic shows a typical strategy. St. Julien positions himself in third, allowing the leaders to burn themselves out. Having conserved his mount's energy, he makes a move in the stretch--powering past the tired leaders.
As soon as St. Julien crosses the wire, his wife hurries to the winner's circle in time to kiss her husband and get in on the official photograph. Later, as he heads back to the jocks' room, a little girl leans over the railing and asks for his autograph; he kindly complies. The girl is so excited that she
grabs her signed program and bounds across five rows of baby shrubs en route to tell her mom.
The next day, on July 10, St. Julien and his wife spend the entire evening exchanging kisses in the winner's circle. St. Julien wins five of the nine races, including four in a row--tying a single-day record established earlier in the meet by Don Pettinger.
St. Julien follows up the next day with three more wins. By the end of the five-day racing week on Sunday, he's racked up 11 wins--including a stakes race, the $50,000 Carter McGregor, Jr. He'd also gained four races on the leading rider, Ardoin.
With Lone Star's riding title in view, St. Julien is setting his mind on bigger things. This time, he won't let his confidence fail him. He plans to decide this week whether to ride the California fairs, which begin at Pomona in September.
That's the way the big boys made their step up to the Southern California thoroughbred racing circuit--the toughest in the world, and the richest.
St. Julien remembered the words of his riding idols after the All-Star Jockey Championship. First he got a compliment from Belmont victor Chris McCarron. Then, after the day's competition was over, St. Julien got Gary Stevens' autograph for his parents.
"After he signed it, he grabbed my hand and said, 'I really like the way you handle yourself--and you look real good on a horse.' He said if I ever wanted to come to California, I should look him up. He'd help me.
"I said a couple trainers had asked me to go to Pomona, and he said, 'Good. You'll be all right.'
"I didn't sleep that night."
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