Cream Always Rises to the Top: Umberto Rispoli wins

April 26, 2021

Umberto Rispoli handles adversity with both class and dignity and keeps winning

A lot of younger people today don’t see the differences. You can’t blame them. We all have our points of reference, and we learn much from what we see, experience, and how the world around us rotates. We live in a society where qualities people were once judged by have taken a back seat. Today people are judged by how far they can hit a baseball, or how accurate they can shoot a basketball, or throw a football or maybe ride a racehorse. Perhaps it is how well you can play a part in front of a camera. It could be how fast you can knock another person out in a ring or today a cage. How fast you can get out a story means much more than if the story is accurate or if it hurts or kicks someone who is already down. There is little news anymore. Today it is the outlets opinion on what happened that is presented, not the facts. They say as a society we advance and technology and speed is a big part of that. I’m not so sure on the advance part.

Things like loyalty, integrity, honesty, and character are merely footnotes. They are rarities. It is way more important how many likes or views a social media post gets or how many contacts and “friends” or “followers” one can collect. The rare times we see displays of class, loyalty and dignity it is often ignored. I don’t think that happens because it is not news per se. I think it is because those qualities don’t mean what they should today, and those talking about or reporting it often don’t even realize what it takes or what it means. They’ll tell you it’s business not personal. Don’t kid yourself, it doesn’t get more personal.

The Kentucky Derby is less than a week away. The most exciting two minutes in sports they say. I, as a lifelong racetracker, racing fan, gambler, and most importantly student of the game would not disagree.

Last year on our podcast before the Kentucky Derby I interviewed a jockey, Luca Panici, who was was riding in his first Kentucky Derby. He was riding a horse named Sole Volante, a big long-shot for trainer Patrick Biancone. Luca was extremely thankful to Mr. Biancone for keeping him on the horse in the Run for the Roses. Luca is a veteran rider, but he rides in Florida year round. Florida with the exception of the Gulfstream Park Championship winter meet is not considered a top tier circuit. A lot of trainers would have replaced him for a rider with Derby experience, or from a major circuit. Biancone didn’t. I said loyalty was rare, but it is not yet extinct. Luca told me how he left Italy years before after having success in his home country to come to the United States. He wound up on the what was then Calder circuit, with no connections, no friends, and speaking barely a word of English. To make things even harder, Calder had many people who spoke primarily Spanish, which put Luca in a position where he did not know one, but both of the main languages he had to navigate. Now, years later he was riding in the Kentucky Derby. Sure he wanted to win it. More important though was that he was there. It was the American dream being realized. Yes, he was as prepared mentally and physically as a jockey can be. In racing we know in addition to all that you need the horse under you.

Sole Volante, primarily a turf horse who had run a few good races on the dirt didn’t perform well in the Derby. For Luca however, he was living the American Dream. He didn’t speak the first or second language, didn’t know a soul, and worked his way into the saddle in the biggest race in the country if not the world. In the midst of a world wide pandemic, with Luca’s home country being ravaged by a pesky virus, there was barely if any mention of what he had accomplished win lose or draw. Sole Volante was a long-shot, and not a story. None of the mainstream coverage I saw said a word about it or what Luca had accomplished. We saw as usual, a lot of baths, a lot of dresses and hats, and a lot of silly cocktails including the mint julep which to me tastes what I’d guess poison would taste like. Horse racing is an epic failure at marketing itself and painting itself in a positive light. We’ll change crop rules and put horses and riders at risk to appease people who don’t like or understand the sport we love, but we won’t even notice the American Dream playing out on our biggest stage. It was more important to point out hats, dresses, and cocktails. That is today’s society.

Class shows, and cream always rises to the top. This occurs naturally even when society as a whole doesn’t help and at times even tries to prevent it. Point in case Umberto Rispoli.

Right around January of 2020 Umberto Rispoli moved his tack from Hong Kong to the United States and began riding at Santa Anita. Top jockey agent Ron Anderson, who also represented Joel Rosario was instrumental in convincing Umberto to come and ride here had his book. Umberto is a world class and accomplished multiple stakes winning rider around the world, so it should really be no surprise in his first 20 mounts here; he won 4, ran second in 4, and third in 2. He hit the ground running and winning and his likable personality and honest and open interaction with people quickly made him a fan favorite. He’d interact with fans on social media including ones who lost bets and can be quite cruel. Way too many front people in racing and many riders are quick to pull the block trigger on social media when anyone criticizes them, or even questions them or disagrees. That does not promote the sport. Umberto did and does and this game needs as much of that as it can get.

Umberto’s skill in the saddle and his bold aggressive riding made him a favorite amongst trainers, owners, and bettors.

Most professional jockeys will win a lot of the races where they have the best horse. The great riders, the special ones find ways to win when they are not on the best horse. They know how and have the skill to beat the best horse. The best recent example of this is when Umberto Rispoli put Red King square into the Breeders’ Cup with an aggressive early move we rarely see in US grass racing today. If you think Red King is a better or faster horse than United this game is probably not for you. This might be the best ride of the year right here and the connections of Red King would not have the Del Mar Handicap trophy on their mantle and the win and you’re in race for the Breeders’ Cup on their resume if not for this masterpiece by Umberto Rispoli. You can watch some true race riding right here:

Umberto after this race said something to the effect of:

I knew they were going slow, 49, 1:15, and I knew my horse would stay the distance so if I could get the jump and get him to the front I thought I could keep them from catching me.

Keep them from catching him he did.

A little more than a month after Ron Anderson helped Umberto relocate his tack not just to another track, but to another country, he stopped representing him in favor of taking the book of John Velazquez. In addition to having a reputation as one of if not the top agents in the country, Ron has also been known to take on experienced established jockeys and further advance their careers. The only rider I recall off hand he failed to do that for was Alan Garcia, who was poised to become a star in the game when Ron took his book. It didn’t work out that way at all. Ron and Alan did not last long. Indian Charlie who wrote a fun and lively almost satirical newsletter on racing for years, would I assume jokingly refer to Ron as the jock-napper.”

The move from Umberto Rispoli to John Velazquez was surprising even for Ron Anderson given the circumstances. There was the whole move to another country, and John Velazquez was also nearing the latter part of his career if not already in it. Umberto was an up and coming star with a bright future and was also already well established with major victories around the world. Leave it to Ron Anderson though, he and John Velazquez went on to win the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic with Authentic for Bob Baffert. Nobody said much about it, and I doubt a lot of people thought about it, but I did. I wondered if Ron had stayed loyal to Umberto might he have rode Authentic? We’ll never know.

What did Umberto Rispoli do when Ron Anderson made the decision to switch riders. He did what professionals do. He kept riding, kept his chin up, found a new agent in Scotty McClennan, and kept on showing up and winning.

The aggressive, heady and ultra competitive rides continued and Umberto Rispoli established himself as not only one of the top jockeys in California, but also one of the top riders in the country. Turf, dirt, it doesn’t matter. He adapted to the nuances of riding in America like he’d been doing it his entire career.

I don’t know what John Sadler or Umberto Rispoli were thinking when Rock Your World was entered in the Santa Anita Derby. I can only conclude Sadler was thinking do I have a Kentucky Derby horse here, and Umberto was thinking if I can win this race I will be riding one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. We know this is the dream of every trainer and rider. Rispoli has watched and studied the Kentucky Derby for years. Would his chance come so soon after landing in the US? Would John Sadler be heading to Louisville with a rising star to US racing and a rising star horse?

In another aggressive ride Umberto Rispoli put Rock Your World into the race early, his first start on the dirt and the two never looked back. He won easily and galloped out strong. A first class ticket to Louisville was punched. The Santa Anita derby was just another of many stake wins for Rispoli, but it was his first Grade 1 in the United States. In comparison to the large majority of riders, it didn’t take long at all to get that first US Grade 1.

The Santa Anita Derby was run when Santa Anita had just decided to let fans back to the races and Umberto jubilantly engaged the fans and paraded Rock Your World for them. It was a great story, and great for the game.

There are not a lot of top tier riders in history who win a Grade 1 Kentucky Derby points and prep race that don’t almost automatically ride the horse back in the Run for the Roses. That is probably more so if the rider rides somewhat regularly for the barn.

It was about a week later when within an hour of winning the Mizdirection Stakes aboard Constantia for Rock Your World’s trainer, John Sadler, that it was announced Umberto Rispoli would be taken off Rock Your World and Joel Rosario would ride him in the Kentucky Derby. Joel Rosario was already named on the Bob Baffert trainee Concert Tour. When Bob decided not to run Concert Tour, Rosario who is still represented by Ron Anderson, (the same Ron Anderson who took on Velazquez after bringing Umberto here) became available and Sadler decided to make the switch. That is his decision along with the owner and whether it was the right or wrong thing to do is not determined by the results of the Kentucky Derby. That is determined by the man looking back at you in the mirror each time you look at one.

It is not how we handle our victories, finer moments, high points, or 15 minutes, or more in some cases of fame which define us. It is how we handle the lows, the downs, the gut punches, the bad breaks and things that don’t go our way which define us. How you lose tells me more about you than how you win. This is how Umberto handled what had to be a shock to the system.

Trainer John Sadler handled it by going on an LA radio show and stating how tough these decisions are, and how whether he was right or wrong would be determined by the race or something like that. I agree with the former, I already wrote what I think about the latter. That’s just my opinion and we will all have our own take on this. Kosta Hronis, the principal owner of Rock Your World responded by stating it was John Sadler’s decision and he allows John to make all his jockey decisions.

On the racetrack Umberto Rispoli handled things the way he has been doing it for years, being the best and most well prepared rider he can be. On Saturday while still hoping to somehow land a Kentucky Derby mount Rispoli won the Crystal Waters stakes with a last to first ride on Brandothebartender paying $12.00. Later on the card he won the last two races aboard Shooters Shoot paying $33.60 and Kristi’s Tiger paying $10.40. Three wins on a Saturday Santa Anita card, after a big blow losing a key mount, and no favorites. The great ones win even when not on the best horse.

While Umberto Rispoli was winning on Kristi’s Tiger fellow jockey Mario Gutierrez had a fall in the stretch of the race. This is from the aftermath, #AllClass :

Sunday morning things got a little better. It was announced that last year’s Remsen stakes winner Brooklyn Strong trained by Danny Velasquez would enter the Kentucky Derby off his troubled trip in the Wood Memorial. Umberto Rispoli got the call to ride and will have his first Kentucky Derby mount God willing. I do not think anyone could say it was not well earned, well deserved, and an excellent call by the connections of Brooklyn Strong.

Sunday afternoon was business as usual for Rispoli. He won the Singletary Stakes aboard Sword Zorro beating the short priced favorite Petruchio. Cream always rises to the top!

Photo: Benoit Photography

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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@PastTheWire Great read brought back some sad memories.The only race she lost killed her. Legacy. @jonathanstettin pic.twitter.com/Jx9WF7OjUe

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