LOUISVILLE, Ky. — No matter what happens the rest of Florent Geroux’s career as a jockey, he will always go down in history as a Kentucky Derby winner.
He just doesn’t feel like one.
“The goal is to cross the wire first,” Geroux said. “If you don’t win, there’s no meaning.”
Geroux, a 35-year-old Frenchman who has become one of America’s leading riders, was aboard Mandaloun last year when he came up about a neck short of Medina Spirit after a battle through the Churchill Downs stretch.
Eight days later, the announcement came down that Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory that is banned on race day. That kicked off a nine-month legal back-and-forth where the final result of the race was somewhat in limbo. On Feb. 21, Medina Spirit was officially disqualified and Mandaloun elevated as the 147th Derby winner.
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Though the traditional plaque commemorating a Derby triumph now adorns the barn of Louisville-based trainer Brad Cox, there wasn’t much to celebrate. That will change if he can win it in a more traditional fashion Saturday with any of his three entries: the Geroux-piloted Cyberknife, Zozos or Tawny Port.
“It’s not like winning the Derby, but we’ll take it,” Cox said. “Obviously the biggest thing with the Derby is the thrill of victory and we didn’t experience that. Looking forward to trying to win another one for sure.”
At this point, any winner that sticks would be an improvement over the strange recent Derby trend: Two of the last three horses that crossed the wire first did not end up as the winner. Prior to 2019, when Maximum Security was disqualified by the stewards for veering out on the final turn and impeding the path of another horse, it had only happened once in Derby history. The previous incident occurred in 1968 when Dancer’s Image was disqualified over a drug test.
At least with the Maximum Security incident, the connections of runner-up Country House got their moment of glory on race day with the blanket of roses and winner’s circle ceremony. Though a disqualification is not the preferred way to win any race — particularly the Kentucky Derby — it’s part of the sport. Something like that was bound to happen sooner or later.
But when you are awarded a victory nine months later, there’s not much satisfaction to be gained.
“There’s no feeling,” Geroux said. “Somebody had to be put first, but nothing exciting to be honest. I was just a recipient of the disqualification of Medina Spirit, but I don’t feel like I achieved anything. At the end of the day, it’s still a Kentucky Derby winner, I guess.”
On paper, Geroux will have an even better opportunity Saturday than he did going in last year with Mandaloun, who was a 27-to-1 long shot coming off a sixth-place finish in his most recent prep race.
Cyberknife could be a decent price too on Saturday — he’s 20-to-1 on the morning line — but won his last two starts including a commanding performance in the Arkansas Derby. The key with Cyberknife has been growing out of his immature tendencies on the track, sometimes struggling to run straight in the stretch because of distractions. He also got a little too frisky in the post parade before the Arkansas Derby, knocking Geroux off the saddle.
It’s hard to know how a horse like that will react when he has to perform in front of 150,000 people and all the hoopla that surrounds the Derby paddock.
“He’s been good lately,” Cox said. “He’s always been a little immature mentally but he’s moved forward a tremendous amount over the last few months and it’ll have a lot to do with how he behaves in the Kentucky Derby. I think what he did in Arkansas, they have a big crowd as well and it was great experience for him. It was the right place to run him and the right result, and hopefully, we can get another one on Saturday.”
As for Mandaloun, he’s still around, too. After a ninth-place finish in the $20 million Saudi Cup — Juddmonte Farms, the owner of Mandaloun, is the racing and breeding operation of the deceased Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah — he was stuck for several weeks due to transportation issues. After going through quarantine and a short freshening at the farm, Mandaloun is back at Churchill and gearing up for a 4-year-old summer campaign where he will race officially as a Derby winner. Though Mandaloun has technically won his last four starts in America, his two biggest wins — the Kentucky Derby and the Haskell Stakes — both came via disqualification. In the Haskell last July, Mandaloun was again second and elevated to first because Hot Rod Charlie was deemed to have caused another horse, Midnight Bourbon, to fall after they clipped heels.
Just like Geroux and Cox want to win a Derby by actually finishing first under the wire, they’re hoping Mandaloun can take a big race on his own accord when he returns to the track later this year.
“For sure, we have business to attend to with him,” Cox said. “We need to make him a Grade 1 winner at the age of 4 and that’s our goal. He just has been back in training a few weeks and he’ll breeze in the near future. We’re back on track.”