"The Frenchman." Hardly anyone in thoroughbred racing refers to Seattle Slew's rider as Jean Cruguet.

"He's been around," owner Mickey Taylor observed. "Jean's even been in the French army. He's tough. And there isn't anybody who's going to out-psych him. He's a former fighter who got tired of being hit in the nose, so he became a jockey."

That may be, but many members of the media have been taking punches at Cruguet ever since he first climbed aboard Saturday's 2-to-5 (or shorter) favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Even the Seattle Slew people, in talking about their jockey, often sound as though they are coming to his defense.

"You mean you're going to ride The Frenchman on that horse." That's what some trainers said to me when I said Jean was going to be on him in the Champagne last year," trainer Billy Turner admitted.

"I told them, 'Yeah. The Champagne owes him one for what happened to him when he rode Hoist The Flag in that race."

Which is precisely the point. Cruguet was on pounds the best horse that late-summer afternoon in 1970. Hoist The Flag finished first, by five lengths, but was disqualified after a stewards' inquiry for having crossed over too sharply on a longshot in the run down the backstretch.

Turner and many other horsemen feel Cruguet and Hoist The Flag did not deserve to be taken down that day. For that reason, perhaps, he stayed with his controversial rider in the Champagne - and he has stayed with him this winner and spring.

"I don't believe in changing course in midstream, not when we've won six in a row," the trainer said, and added, "I lost a job once because I wouldn't change riders, when the owner said the stable wasn't winning enough races. Eldon Nelson was the Jockey, and it wasn't his fault. The jockey was good enough. It was the horses that needed improvement."

This is usually the case. The importance of a jockey to any horse's winning a race is over-rated. "No more than 10 per cent, tops," Eddie Arcaro once declared.

That's looking at it from a ppositive point of view. There are, however, jockeys who are notorious for making mistakes at crucial times in important stakes.

No one has ever accused Jean Cruguet of being a "money rider." In this sense, from a negative point of view, the jockey can be all-important. Or, as trainer Johnny Campo blurted this week: "Two minutes can be awfully long for The Frenchman to go without making a mistake."

A few Maryland horsemen will never forget Cruguet's effort on the brilliant French filly, Jan San, in the 1972 Washington, D.C., International at Laurel.

"There was this spill involving Boreen and another horse up ahead of him - 50 yards up ahead - and Cruguet just kept pumping, his head down, on the filly, and damn near drove her right over them. She didn't go down, but she lost all chance (of winning)," one trainer recalls.

Cruguet tends to be outspoken, too. Remembered is his comment after the 1975 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct that began, "If this horse (Media) had a trainer, he'd have won today by several lengths . . ."

Little wonder than that Campo, Media's trainer, now is taking verbel shots at Cruguet. Campo and Curguet couldn't stand the displeasure of each other's company that spring but Media's owner insisted that they continue as a team through the Derby. Cruguet gave Media a fine ride here to finish fifth.

Now they're saying Cruguet will be come flustered Saturday when Julio Espinoza, aboard Bob's Dusty from the No. 3 post, wheels and deals some deadly speed in the long run to the first turn, with Seattle Slew (No. 4) alongside. Or that Angel Cordero, the rider of For The Moment, is going to rattle Cruguet when he challenges for the lead on the backstretch.

Such comments are stretching reality a bit taut. Cruguet is not to be confused with Cordero or Jorge Velasquez or Laffitt Pincay or Darrell McHargue or Bill Shoemaker, but he is competent, and he rides a horse in this Derby ideally equipped to keep him out of trouble.

It is not true, as some suggest, that the only winner Cruguet has ridden since Seattle Slew scored in the Flamingo March 26 was Seattle Slew in the Wood Memorial April 23. That's not true. Not quite.

But I must confess there is something about Cruguet that fails to inspire confidence. As, for example, Sunday morning at Barn 42 in the Churchill Downs backstretch after Seattle Slew had returned from his mile workout.

"How fast did he go?" a reporter asked the jockey.

"Oh, in about :38," meaning 1:38, Cruguet replied.

Seattle Slew's time was about 1:42, cerebellums, contrary to popular conception. But for a rider to miss the time of a mile workout by four seconds is absolutely scary.

That's Cruguet. One mistake is a losing race and he'll be off Seattle Slew.