Umberto Rispoli understands how hard it can be for a foreign rider to break in at a place like Santa Anita. That’s why he was delighted to be tied for seventh in the standings at the current meet with six wins after Sunday’s card. But the former champion rider in his native Italy didn’t come here to be mid-pack in the jockey standings.
“My target is to win some of the major races in the U.S.,” he said. “Flavien Prat is a good example. He came from Europe and he won the (GI) Kentucky Derby last year and has had many wins in big races like the Breeders’ Cup. I would like to follow in his footsteps.”
In 2009, Rispoli had 245 winners in Italy, breaking Frankie Dettori’s record for most wins in a calendar year. He was named champion rider in Italy that year, a feat he repeated in 2010. Ready to move on, Rispoli began splitting his time between France and Hong Kong before he made the switch to Hong Kong on a year-round basis. Hong Kong was never a good fit for him. He had 31 winners there during the 2017-2018 season, but his numbers fell afterwards. When he left in December, he had just five wins on the season.
“There was not enough opportunity in Hong Kong,” he said. “Whenever I got a good horse to ride I was replaced by another jockey. Zac Purton and Joao Moreira, they are the two kings over there and they get all the best mounts. There’s not a lot of loyalty. You work hard, get up early in morning to work horses. You try to build up relationships with trainers and once horses are ready to go and win, they change the jockey. There was no respect and no loyalty at all. The last few seasons in Hong Kong were very, very tough. I’m not the only jockey that decided to leave.”
He began to lay the groundwork for coming to the U.S. last summer when Dettori put in a good word for him with agent Ron Anderson and put the two together. Rispoli traveled to Saratoga to meet the agent, who suggested he wait until after the Breeders’ Cup and then come to California.
“I have known Frankie since I was very young,” he said. “For any Italian rider, Frankie is on top, he is everything. I have a very good relationship with him and it was kind of him to have a chat with Ron about me. That helped because Ron didn’t know me at all. I’m doing my best to not let Frankie down.”
The biggest obstacle Rispoli faced when he came to California was that trainers not only didn’t know him, most had never heard of him.
“I was riding in another country and the time difference between the two was 16 hours,” he said. “It is difficult to follow races all over the world. I have ridden all over the world, but I was not surprised that people here didn’t know me. That made things difficult. I also had to go against some very good riders like Joel Rosario, Mike Smith, Flavien Prat and Abel Cedillo.”
He got off to a fast start, winning four races during the first eight days of the meet. He then cooled off a bit, but came back to win a race on Friday and Saturday. He currently has 6 wins from 37 mounts and a winning rate of 16 percent.
“Considering that no one knew who I was when I came here, I think I am doing pretty good,” he said. “It was a good time to come and I am very happy with the way my season has started in California. I like this place. I’ve had some winners. I am happy when I go to work in the mornings and I’m happy to have met the people I have.”
One concern Rispoli has is that he will be type-cast as a grass rider. Five of his six wins have come on the grass and he did not get his first dirt win until Saturday when he won a six-furlong race aboard D’s Lovely Sophia (Big Bad Leroybrown).
“There are some smaller tracks that have dirt courses in Italy and I won a lot of dirt races there,” he said. “Definitely, American horses on dirt are a different story than rest of the world. I don’t think it will be really difficult to adapt, but I know I have some things to learn. I don’t want people to classify me as just a turf jockey. I know I am capable on the dirt. I just need the opportunities.”
Because Anderson, who is also the agent for Rosario, will return to the East in the spring, Rispoli isn’t sure whether or not he will stay in California or head to New York with his agent. He said he will lean heavily on Anderson for advice. Either way, he insists he has no plans to return to Europe or Hong Kong. His goal is to make it in the U.S.
“Every day here, you learn,” he said. “When yo do something with heart and it is a pleasure, it is easy to learn. There are more big races coming up and we’ll see if I get a mount on a top horse. I am happy here, but I have to learn every day. This is a big opportunity for me. I am young, just 31, so I have 10, 15 years to go further. I’m here to stay. I am not going to go back.”