Nothing brings together human and equine athleticism like the Sport of Kings, Thoroughbred Racing. Majestic, powerful, and fleet thoroughbreds, guided in competition by pound for pound some of the strongest athletes in the world, at a tenth of their counterparts weight. It is a sight to behold, and those of us who get to live it, understand why for so many years this was indeed the most watched spectator sport.
We often celebrate our great horses. They inspire admiration, conversation, and even debate. As a student of the game, I welcome all of it. I also enjoy recognizing great riders. I like to spot them before their talent in the saddle becomes common knowledge. I have been doing this since I was a kid summering in Saratoga watching jockeys like Angel Cordero Jr., Laffit Pincay Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Jacinto Vazquez and so many others. I enjoy spotting riders with talent as much as I do horses. A few years back I wrote this article about the Ortiz brothers and look where they are today.
Riders make a difference. Great riders make a big difference. We all know you need the horse, but the horse often also needs the right ride and rider. A great rider is not only an athlete, but has to be a student and scholar as well. Those are the ones who can win even when not on the best horse, and rarely get the best horse beat when they are on it. Umberto Rispoli is one of those riders.
When I first heard Umberto Rispoli was coming to America to ride I only knew a little about him and had only watched him ride a few times. When he arrived I watched closely, and quickly realized he was one of the best around. Anywhere. World class. He has a style that can change quickly, depending on what his horse is doing and responding to. He can get low, flat, and slick on a horse in an instant, and can powerfully drive one home or wake one up if they start getting lazy. He does it all well with no weakness in the saddle.
On Saturday at Santa Anita Umberto Rispoli enjoyed his first three win day since moving his tack to the US and Southern California. He had already won his first stake aboard Billy Batts just over a week prior. This is really nothing new for Umberto who has enjoyed Group 1 success everywhere he has ridden, and he has ridden all over the world.
Umberto began riding in his home country of Italy. He won his first race ever in February of 2005 aboard Pace Maker. Before leaving Italy he was the Champion Italian Jockey in 2009 and 2010. He also broke Gianfranco Dettori’s (Frankie Dettori’s father) record of 229 wins. That record had stood for 20 years.
While riding in Italy these are some of the races Umberto won:
The Premio Lydia Tessio aboard Aoife Alainn, The Premio Presidente della Repubblica aboard Estejo, he won this race again on Cleo Fan, and the Premio Gran Criterium on Priore Phillip.
In France at Longchamp he won the Group 1 Prix du Cadren aboard Molly Malone and the Group 1 Criterium International on Vert de Grece.
In Japan he won the Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen on Kinshasa no Kiseki.
His biggest win to date was in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II at Sha Tin in Hong Kong. You don’t often hear announcers state a rider has put a horse in perfect position during the call of a Group 1 race, but that is what Umberto did, and the announcer made the call.
Watch Umberto Rispoli guide Rulership to a Grade 1 win in Hong Kong
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Umberto Rispoli and talk about his career and his move to the states.
How is it that you decided to leave Hong Kong and come to the states to ride, especially when you were successful over there?
Actually there were a few reasons I wanted to move. While the Jockey Club treats riders very well, that is not true of everybody. The Jockey Club provides an apartment and a car, and that is very nice, but there you cannot have an agent. I had to work horses in the morning, which is ok and I love to do, but I also had to spend a lot of time going barn to barn myself looking for both mounts, and horses to work. I had to watch a lot of replays to find horses I wanted to try and ride. Over there a lot of trainers use a race to get a horse ready, and if you ride one under those conditions, of course you want to ride them back when they have that race under the belt. That doesn’t always happen and with no agent it is harder to keep track and do everything else you have to do. Basically I was doing two jobs. Also there were less and less opportunities. There was not a lot of loyalty to riders so I thought it could be a good time to try somewhere else.
How did you come to hire Ron Anderson? He is one of the best agents around, and is known for only taking the best of riders on.
I was talking to my friend Marco Bozzi. I was telling him the same things I told you and in the middle of the conversation he said I have an idea, let me check something and call you back. I did not know what he was doing but he reached out to Ron and told him about me. Apparently Ron was interested. After that and again without me even knowing Frankie Dettori reached out to Ron and also told him about me. Last August I flew to Saratoga to meet Ron and talk. That is where we finalized plans for me to move my tack here and Ron to handle my book.
Did you know where you would be riding, and where you will be riding going forward?
Not really. I knew either New York, California, or even Kentucky. Ron will decide that and I am ready to go anywhere, and wherever the opportunities are. Los Angeles has been beautiful, a beautiful city, but if we go somewhere else that is ok too. I want to go and ride where the best opportunities are. It doesn’t matter where.
Thus far how has it been here, how have you been received in the backstretch?
Really good. Everyone has been good. So far people have been receptive and I am getting chances on horses who have a good chance. That is what you want.
What are some of the differences between riding in the US and other places you’ve ridden?
Well there is more dirt racing here. On dirt you can afford to go a little wider if you have to than on turf. On turf you want to save as much ground as you can. You can hold your position inside longer on turf than on dirt. On dirt you can have momentum and go around horses easier. There are also a lot of smaller fields here. It is also a lot stricter over there for jockeys. Once I was suspended over a Facebook post in Japan I did not even make, Someone ran my Facebook fan page and posted something on a day I was riding. I tried to explain it wasn’t me, someone ran the page and it was a fan page, not a personal page. It didn’t matter. I was suspended anyway. They are a lot stricter. The bigger fields also mean more riders and more competition. And of course having an agent is like a luxury. Over there I was also doing Ron’s job.
Do you have any concerns since you have been here?
Concerns, no but I will say this. I am winning more on turf because I am riding more on turf. It is not because I favor turf or am better or different on turf.It is just opportunities. I am getting more of them on grass right now.
Umberto is a very intelligent rider. He has an excellent grasp of the sport, including racing here in the US. After watching him closely, and talking with him it was easy to see why Ron Anderson took his book. This guy is smart, personable, and can flat out race ride. We wish him all the best and all the success the Sport of Kings has to offer