By Jennie Rees, for Gulfstream Park
In arguably the most significant three-day stretch in his 31 years, jockey Florent Geroux will be riding a wave of emotions.
Thursday night Geroux watched from afar as Gun Runner, the best Thoroughbred he has ever been on, was crowned Horse of the Year at Gulfstream Park. On Saturday, they will go to the gate together as the favorite for the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational in what will be the 5-year-old’s final start before retiring to stud at co-owner Three Chimneys Farm.
In between, the French-born Geroux was in Chicago Friday to take the oral test that is required to become a naturalized United States citizen. Geroux, who came to America in 2008, and his family now live in Louisville, Ky., but resided in Chicago when the jockey started his immigration process.
“My gosh, the timing of this,” said Geroux’s American wife, Kasey. “He’s been waiting for the test portion for like a year and a half. He got the paperwork with the time and day a few weeks ago. I’m like, ‘Of course it’s got to be the day before the Pegasus.’ The citizenship and the Pegasus are both monumental, an extremely important time in his life.”
For all the joy that comes with Gun Runner, there will be an aching void at the Pegasus. Geroux’s father and biggest fan, Dominique, died Dec. 29 from head injuries sustained in a fall on Christmas Eve in France. Dominique would stay with Florent and Kasey for two-month stretches twice a year to coincide with the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup.
This year, Dominique also was to come for the Pegasus World Cup, the world’s richest horse race.
“He was going to fly here last week from France and stay with me, and we were going to fly down there together,” Geroux said of Florida. “We miss him, and hopefully he’ll be watching me and rooting for us.”
Dominique, himself a former jockey and trainer who never was involved with anything close to a Gun Runner, made many of the horse’s races, including wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar and the Woodward (G1), the first time the elder Geroux had been to Saratoga.
“He loved the horse, like all my friends and family,” Geroux said. “Horse of a lifetime for everyone involved. Riding those kinds of races and having our family and friends supporting you in the moment, it’s priceless. (Dominique) saw most of Gun Runner’s wins, only a few he missed. The Breeders’ Cup Classic was the last time he saw me on a horse.”
Geroux, having worked Gun Runner for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen that Christmas Eve morning at the Fair Grounds Race Course, flew to Chicago to join Kasey and young daughters Olivia and Celine for a holiday celebration with Kasey’s family. The jockey received word of his dad’s accident before getting to Chicago, but the prognosis initially did not seem so grim
The Geroux family was to fly to New Orleans Christmas night so the jockey could be back riding Dec. 26th. Instead, after consulting with his brother and cousin in France, Florent flew to New Orleans alone to retrieve his passport, traveling to France the next day, with Kasey joining him a day later.
“He was optimistic when he saw him the first time, because Dominique was awake and knew who he was, knew who I was because I was FaceTiming with him,” Kasey said. “He was watching TV here and there, kind of in and out. When I got there the following day, he was having a not-so-great day and he ended up passing the next day.
“Flo isn’t overly superstitious like a lot of athletes are, but he always wanted his dad here for the really big races,” she added. “He couldn’t imagine him not being here for the big ones, especially with this being Gun Runner’s last race.… I know it will be in the back of his mind the whole time, but he is a focused person and very grounded so I don’t think it will affect his mental state, but certainly it will be a thought through the whole thing.”
When Dominique died, Geroux posted on his Twitter feed: “It is with a broken heart I announce my father Dominique Geroux passed away today. He was my #1 fan, the best dad and an incredible grandfather. He was loved by the racing community and loved everyone, too. I miss him terribly already. Je t’aime Papa.”
Jockey agent Doug Bredar — who has lined up the mounts for Geroux the past eight years, through their struggles to even get on long shots in Chicago to his ascent as one of the top riders in the country — said Dominique’s death was devastating but that Geroux is “very, very strong.
“He lost his mother when he was a child, and I truly believe that’s one of the reasons that he’s such a fierce competitor. He’s battle-tested,” he added. “His father was perfectly healthy the last time he saw him. He had every intention of him coming back here. It’s terribly sad, heart-breaking. I’ve got to believe cleaning out his father’s place was one of the most difficult things he’s had to do in his life. He was Florent’s biggest fan, and he absolutely cherished the moments when Flo won big races and even competed in big races.”
Dominique’s English was limited, but it didn’t stop him from having animated conversations with Bredar, who knows only a few French words.
“Even if I hadn’t seen him in months, he would come up to me and start talking to me in French in such an energetic and enthusiastic tone,” Bredar said. “He was so happy to be here and to see his son ride and the success he was attaining. He was such an energetic man, and that’s the tough part.”
Gun Runner’s finale on the racetrack would be emotional regardless. Geroux has ridden Gun Runner for his past 15 races, spanning nine victories and almost $9 million in purses, including a second in the 2017 Dubai World Cup (G1) and 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1). They finished third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1) after winning the Louisiana Derby (G2).
“It’s going to be bittersweet, no matter what happens Saturday,” said Kasey Geroux, whose late father, Louis Spindler, was a jockey. “Gun Runner has been such an amazing aspect of our family over the past couple of years. He’s given us so much more than he could ever know, the joy and the thrills. Even my kids, they talk about Gun Runner all the time. They tell their teachers about him, they draw pictures of him. They always want to go see him when he’s here (in Louisville).
“You’re more than lucky when something like this comes along, and you never know if it will happen again,” she added. “We’ll be excited to see what kind of champions he breeds, and I think he’ll be an amazing stud, but I’ll miss watching him race for sure. And I know Florent will miss being on his back.”
Geroux, the two-time defending winter meet champion at the Fair Grounds, would have loved to have been at Thursday’s Eclipse Awards. He originally planned to attend the ceremony at Gulfstream, fly back to ride Friday in New Orleans and then return for the Pegasus. Aware of the importance of current business, when the citizenship test entered the agenda Geroux decided making the Eclipse Awards required missing too many days at his winter base, especially since he’s riding Sunday in Texas for Sam Houston Race Park’s multi-stakes card.
“The horse is doing better than ever, just getting into a nice rhythm,” Geroux said of Gun Runner. “But there’s the other side of the game, too, in the breeding shed. It’s a lot of money for him in the stallion lineup. It can be risky, the horse on the track. I understand both sides of it but (his retirement) is definitely sad for me.
“We liked him from the beginning, though he wasn’t the Gun Runner he is obviously is right now,” he added. “But, he’s always been a very talented horse. We knew after he won the Louisiana Derby so easily that we had something serious. Riding a horse like Gun Runner shows people you can do it, you can ride a horse that nice and that caliber. Hopefully, Gun Runner will bring more horses like him to me in my career.”