With a Derby Mount, Fresu's Star Continues to Rise

Antonio Fresu aboard Stronghold | Horsephotos


Jockey Antonio Fresu watched the 2023 GI Kentucky Derby on television. Though from Italy, he understood the importance of the race and knew that everybody, be it a jockey, trainer, owner, aspires to win it. But he had no reason to believe that he'd ever win the Derby, let alone ride in it. In late April of last year, just eight days before the Derby, he had started riding in the U.S. at Santa Anita. He was unknown and unproven to the trainers in the U.S.

“I came here to find out if I would like it,” the 32-year-old rider said.

He won a race at Santa Anita on Derby Day, guiding Baladi (Pioneerof the Nile) to a win. The victory came in a modest starter/optional claimer, but it was a good sign. He rode five horses on the day and had already caught the attention of top trainers like Doug O'Neill and Phil D'Amato.

One year later, Fresu is not only still here, but he has wildly exceeded his expectations. Established as one of the top riders on the Southern California circuit, he will ride GI Santa Anita Derby winner Stronghold (Ghostzapper) in Saturday's Derby for D'Amato.

“I'm over the moon,” he said. “I know how prestigious the Santa Anita Derby is and that it gets you to the Kentucky Derby. Winning the Santa Anita Derby was an amazing achievement. I was more than happy. He proved that he belonged in the Kentucky Derby and to ride in that race is a dream come true. Everybody wants to be in the Derby.”

Fresu had been splitting his time between riding in Italy and in Dubai, where he won the 2021 GI Golden Shaheen aboard Zenden (Fed Biz) for U.S.-based trainer Carlos David. He was doing well in Dubai, but was looking for new challenges because racing was on decline in Italy. But going to America didn't seem practical. He didn't know anyone there, nobody knew him, and he didn't have an agent. That all changed when he met O'Neill, who, in 2022, sent a string to Dubai.

“I got to meet Doug O'Neill through my agent, Michael Adolphson, who is an American who was working in Dubai,” Fresu said. “He was pushing me hard to go to America. He always said that I would do great over here. He put me in touch with Doug O'Neill. I knew I could ride some for Doug and he lined me up with my new agent, Tom Knust, who has been doing a fabulous job. I figured it was time to take a chance.”

“I'm so impressed with Antonio on how good he is at getting horses in good positions, and always seeming to have run for the stretch,” O'Neill said. “He's a real smart rider who can really help a trainer make tweaks to help bring the best out of each horse. He's a great addition to American racing.

At Del Mar, Fresu's career took off. At the 2023 summer meet, he rode 31 winners, second best behind Southern California kingpin Juan Hernandez.

“Coming into Del Mar, I still wasn't sure if I would stay or not,” he said. “My wife Veronika [who is an assistant trainer in Dubai] still isn't here with me. I had to take a lot of things into consideration. In the beginning, I didn't know what I was going to do. But after the meet I had at Del Mar, it would have been stupid not to stay. I wasn't expecting that things would go so well and would go so well so quickly.”

Fresu also finished second in the standings behind Hernandez in the recently concluded winter meet at Santa Anita, and much of his success had to do with his association with D'Amato. He's had nine wins this year for the trainer, including four stakes victories, two of them coming with Stronghold.

Joe Talamo rode the colt in his first two starts before Fresu took over in the GIII Bob Hope S. at Del Mar, where he finished second behind the talented colt Nysos (Nyquist).

“Phil always thought he was a very good horse,” Fresu said. “I started breezing him back at Del Mar. We ran him against Nysos at Del Mar and he did well, finishing second. But he was still immature. After that, Phil brought him to Los Alamitos for the Futurity in December and the horse showed a lot of improvement even though he was second again. Since that race we were thinking we may have a Derby horse.”

Next up, Stronghold won the GIII Sunland Derby and then the Santa Anita Derby, overcoming trouble to beat the Bob Baffert-trained Imagination (Into Mischief).

“Phil sent him to Sunland and he won the Sunland Derby, which gave him more confidence,” Fresu said. “After the Sunland Derby and before the Santa Anita Derby, I breezed him a couple of times and he was working super. He was showing that he was more mature and more grown up. He was showing a lot of talent. When we went into the Santa Anita Derby, I was pretty confident. He fought pretty hard to win that race.”

Fresu will be one of three Italian-born riders to have mounts in this year's Derby. In addition to Umberto Rispoli, who rides Endlessly (Oscar Performance), Frankie Dettori will be aboard longshot Society Man (Good Magic).

“Frankie has always been my idol,” Fresu said. “Ever since I was a kid, he was the jockey that I looked up to. Now that I get to ride with him in California, it's like a dream that came true. First of all, he's an amazing person. To me, he is the best jockey in the world, and he is still my idol.”

For Fresu and Stronghold, winning the Derby will not be easy. The Santa Anita Derby was not a particularly tough race and, on the Beyer figures, Stronghold isn't fast enough to beat horses like Fierceness (City of Light) and Sierra Leone (Gun Runner). He is 20-1 on the morning line.

“Before this year, I have only watched the Derby on television and I never expected to be there,” Fresu said. “It is the most prestigious race in the country. I don't know how it's going to end up, but getting there is really important for everyone who is involved with this horse. It is a very tough race. You need to have a good trip because there are so many runners. But the horse is doing great and is in good shape. We'll take our chances. I am really honored to have this opportunity.”

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