FRANKLIN, Ky. (Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021) — Umberto Rispoli spent most of a week at Kentucky Downs last year in order to ride only two races that wound up five days apart. But even as he jogged around the 1 5/16-mile undulating turf course to keep his weight down, he knew he wanted to come back this year.
Rispoli finished 10th in his first start at Kentucky Downs, the Dueling Grounds Oaks, then five days later made the trip from California worth it financially by winning the $400,000 Music City Stakes aboard Lighthouse. The Music City was part of a card that moved from a Sunday to the following Tuesday because of torrential rain.
But Rispoli — who has ridden all over the world including being a champion rider in his native Italy and a Group 1 winner in Hong Kong — had already made up his mind that he wanted to return to the FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs, the richest six days of racing in America and among the most lucrative in the world.
The FanDuel Meet at Kentucky Downs runs this coming Sunday, Labor Day Monday and Sept. 8, 9, 11 and 12. First post is 12:20 p.m. Central.
Rispoli admits he wasn’t happy when some of his anticipated mounts for Kentucky Downs fell through.
“But it was going to be an experience for me, anyway,” he said. “Because I’d never been to Kentucky Downs and I know it’s a class track and had a scenery like some of the tracks we have in Europe. So I was excited about it. I just saw some of their races on TV. I didn’t know much about the track. I ran around the track to lose some weight, and it was a good time to check out the track. But definitely when you come home with a stakes in your pocket after five days, it was worth it and it was a good experience.
“I hope this time to have more races to ride and more horses with chances…. The agent is going to be very important there. There’s a lot of money. They’re going to be overfilled in every race probably. But I’m very excited to come back there. This time I hope to bring home some other big winners.”
Veteran jockey agent Scott McClellan said he’s got Rispoli riding at Kentucky Downs for the final four days after their Del Mar base closes on Labor Day. His stakes business is expected to include Argentine-bred Belmont Gold Cup runner-up Fantasioso for trainer Ignacio Correas in the $1 million Calumet Turf Cup (G2) and Constantia for John Sadler in the $600,000 The Mint Ladies Sprint.
Rispoli is in his second full year of riding year-round in America. In that short period of time, he has stamped himself among the top few jockeys based in southern California. Rispoli currently ranks 14th in North American purse earnings for 2021 at more than $7 million, including his first and second Grade 1 victories in the United States aboard Smooth Like Strait in the Shoemaker Mile and Rock Your World in the RUNHAPPY Santa Anita Derby.
The jockey says he had no expectations coming into Kentucky Downs last year. The course catches a lot of people by surprise with its undulations, kidney shape and dog-legged stretch rather than American racing’s standard flat oval.
“I just knew it was an up-and-down racecourse, which isn’t common in the United States,” he said, adding of his close friend and fellow rider Flavien Prat, with whom Rispoli traveled from California last year: “We landed and go to visit the track right away. He turns into the street for the racetrack, and I said, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘This is the track.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding! Well, it’s going to be fun.’
“I wasn’t disappointed at all. I was laughing. I said, ‘OK, it looks like home.’ In France sometimes you’re driving for hours and you look on the side of the highway and you find the rails and you think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe there’s a racetrack here.’ So I wasn’t that shocked. But it was funny to approach the track, just watching and seeing it for the first time.”
Stall on KY Downs: ‘Nice little day trip’ made ‘really good’ with win
Trainer Al Stall hopes to run a half-dozen horses at Kentucky Downs, but understands that all-grass racing, a European-style course layout and a blink-and-it’s-gone season are not the only elements that make the track unique in America.
“The most difficult thing about Kentucky Downs is getting in the races,” Stall said recently at his barn at Saratoga Race Course. He wasn’t joking.
A total of 62 races with hard-to-ignore purses are scheduled in the condition book, but the volume of entries was so strong Monday that the racing office added another race to the opening-day program on Sunday, Sept. 5. Seven of the 11 races Sunday have full fields of 12. The smallest field is nine. Horsemen and handicappers love the meet that concludes its run on Sunday, Sept. 12
Stall was right on the money when he said, “I imagine that the first 2-year-old race on opening day that there will be 50 or 60 in there and they can only take 12. They might bring it back it back as an extra. They might not get to it.”
In this instance, the racing office made two 12-horse fields out of the maiden race offered at 6 1/2 furlongs for 2-year-old fillies and 11- and 10-horse divisions out of the 2-year-old maiden race going a mile for Sunday’s program. Both carry a $135,000 pot for Kentucky-bred horses.
Stall was able to get Formal Act into one of the mile maiden races and the 3-year-old filly Social Dilemma in a $145,800 allowance race that attracted an overflow field for Sunday. He needs two scratches to get Gillian Elizabeth into a 2-year-old filly maiden race.
Kentucky Downs’ lucrative stakes purses — $10 million for 16 stakes — draw horses from across the country, making it a national meet. The $1 million G2 Calumet Turf Cup drew 57 nominations. The G3 $1,000,000 FanDuel Turf Sprint had 47 nominations.
Among the horses that Stall has aimed for the Kentucky Downs meet is In Good Spirits, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly owned by Bal Mar Equine LLC. She will try the $600,000 Mint Ladies Sprint, a 6 ½-furlong Grade 3 on Saturday, Sept. 11, which drew 54 nominations. In her most recent start, In Good Spirits finished second in the G3 Caress at Saratoga.
Stall, who is based in Louisville, Ky., during the warm-weather months on either side of the Saratoga meet, shipped the filly back to the Trackside training center in Louisville to prepare for the Mint Ladies Sprint. He also could run Dalika in the $750,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf (G3) on Sept. 11 or the $550,000 Kentucky Downs Ladies Marathon on Sept 12. The German-bred Dalika won last year’s restricted One Dreamer for Stall’s first stakes victory at the track.
“It’s a nice little day trip,” he said. “If you happen to come home a winner, it’s a really good day trip. They are nice down there and everything is easy and smooth, from Louisville, the short little ship that we have to do. It’s a comfortable place for us to run.”
Stall appreciates the purse structure and the challenge that Kentucky Downs presents horsemen and their runners accustomed to America’s flat, oval tracks.
“I wouldn’t mind doing it all the time, if you have the right horse that likes it down there,” he said. “Some of them do and it’s trying to match them up. It’s a short window. Everything has to be just right. The weather has to cooperate. The competition. The horse has to like the undulations. You’ve got to ship properly. A lot of things have to come together for you to end up in that winner’s circle. It’s a little bit more difficult than the standard walk-out-the-back-of-your-barn to the paddock.”
The rewards, however, are commensurate with the challenge. Kentucky Downs is scheduled to average $2.5 million in daily purses, the largest in North America and surpassed only by Japan in the world.
Kentucky Downs Press Release
Photo: Umberto Rispoli aboard Lighthouse in the Kentucky Downs paddock before winning last year’s Music City Stakes. Coady Photography