French jockey now an American just in time for Derby week

The Leparouxs after a race at Churchill Downs
The Leparouxs after a race at Churchill Downs
Juilen and Shea Leparoux
Juilen and Shea Leparoux

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - At the age of two and a half, Mitchell Leparoux rides a decorative ceramic horse on the rug in the living room.

But his parents can't say much. Daddy did that, too. It's the love of horses and racing that's all in the family.

The family's roots trace back to a town just north of Paris, France, where Julien Leparoux's father rode and then trained horses.

"I was born into it, and so I knew from a very young age I wanted to be a jockey, so it was a dream come true to be able to come here and ride races," Leparoux told WAVE 3 News. He obtained a visa and made it to Saratoga in 2003. Two years later, he set an apprentice jockey record and then dominated at Churchill Downs with the most wins in the 2006 spring meet.

It would be three years before Leparoux would make more history at Churchill Downs. He met Shea Mitchell at the Kentucky Derby. The daughter of a longtime Southern California trainer caught his eye. But it would be two years later at the Breeders' Cup when they reconnected and got engaged three months later.

"I wasn't supposed to marry a jockey according to my dad," Shea Leparoux said, adding that the good news was her dad took a liking to Julien.

Frenchman marries California girl.

"I mean, the American dream, I guess," Julien Leparoux exclaimed.

Now, two young kids and more than 2,200 wins later, Julien Leparoux finalized another dream by becoming an American citizen just a few months ago.

"I always felt like I was home, but I feel like now it's a done deal," he said. "It's official. It's just that I think it's a proud moment because it doesn't happen in a day or two. It takes years to be able to do it and when it finally comes, it's like, 'Yes I did it.'"

The Leparouxs have settled into a home in Louisville's east end. Well, sort of. For six months they're in Kentucky and the rest of the year they're at tracks in Florida and New York.

"I feel like to be on the crazy train with a jockey, if you don't have either a background or a love or passion for it, it can be a little bit challenging because the lifestyle is crazy," Julien Leparoux said.

Added Shea Leparoux: "We're all over the place and with the kids it's even crazier, but I love the business. I love the horses."

Both of them being transplants, they notice several differences between their hometowns and the Bluegrass.

"I love the slower pace," Shea Leparoux said. "I love the Southern charm. When we moved here our neighbors gave us brownies. I'm like, I didn't even know my neighbors in Los Angeles."

Added Julien Leparoux: "I went back to France and see the Big Mac is actually smaller, way smaller than the one they have here!" No worries though for him because he's the rare jockey who can eat pretty much what he wants and still maintain the necessary weight of around 115 pounds.

Most important of all to this Eclipse Award-winning jockey is the culture of horse racing here.

"It's Kentucky, the state," he said. "You know -- Keeneland and Churchill -- I just love both of them. It's just the fans, they know about horse racing, they're here and they enjoy it and they love it."

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