Horse Racing Nation‘s Andrew Capone caught up with jockey Umberto Rispoli to talk about winning races around the globe, riding with Frankie Dettori and how he got started as a jockey in Italy.
Here’s their conversation, edited for clarity.
Andrew: Umberto, how’s California weather treating you?
Umberto: Look, we got some heavy rain in the last couple of weeks, which affects a lot on the racing as well. We had a couple of meetings off, but at the same time I have the chance to enjoy the family more, so that wasn’t that bad.
Andrew: Well, I know you have a new baby so it must be nice to spend a little more time, probably change a couple more diapers than normal. So here we go. Question No. 1: From Italy to France to Hong Kong to Southern California. Walk me through how this whole process started.
Umberto: Very simple. My dad was a jockey back in the days in Italy. He used to ride the most of the those races then we call palios, which you race on the street. I can say I was born in the barn so I grew up with all intents to be a rider, be a jockey. At the age of 16 I went to the jockey school. I worked from a couple of Hall of Fame Italian trainers. And as soon as I get my license I work for the best trainers we had in Italy, Alduino and Giuseppe Botti, they are two brothers. I was a champion apprentice, was a champion jockey twice. I broke Frankie Dettori’s father’s record, to make 245 wins in one year. From there I decided to go winter in Japan, I was very successful. I won my first Grade 1 in Japan. I moved to a little stint to Hong Kong, I won of the one of the biggest races they have, the Queen Elizabeth.
From there I met my agent, to take me from Italy to France. His name is actually Alexis Gusso. So had that transition when in France for four years. Then another step after being grateful in France as well, I have such a great time and a lot of good, good winners. I moved to Hong Kong, and I think that is the toughest jurisdiction to jockeys in the world. And after that I was just feeling ready to change and I decided to move to California. Once I talked to Ron Anderson on the phone, I met Rob Anderson and here we are.
Andrew: That’s an amazing story and world traveler, you’ve ridden pretty much everywhere. Before we go into anything else, question No. 2: Hong Kong – what was that, like that is the mecca of horse racing. Let’s say, two days a week you have pretty much mounts every single race. You have top jockeys when the horses are so even almost across the way, evenly matched. What is that like? Because I feel like the jockey makes such a big difference there versus other jurisdictions where the horses’ class is really even versus other places where you have horses coming up and down. It’s really even there, so what was that experience like? What was it like living there?
Umberto: I mean the life – Hong Kong is beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s a country that opens their arms to everybody, gives an opportunity to everybody. And Hong Kong Jockey Club gives you these chances, opportunity to be there. But what makes us excited is that every single race is a handicap race. The most difficult part of the game is that you’re not allowed to have an a jockey agent out there, so you’re being an agent for itself.
So you find the horses by yourself. That’s what is very, very tough because you know you have to handicap horses during the week, you do exactly the agent’s work over there. It’s very difficult, it’s open races. I would say the favorite most of the time won. But it’s not always like that. As I said, you know, you go from a scale from 133 pounds to 115. So it’s 20 pounds difference. The atmosphere, it’s amazing. I mean the people were at the track just because they passionate. The Chinese people love gambling. I don’t know if you’re watching yesterday there was the Chinese New Year.
Crazy, crazy, crazy – but that’s just because the Chinese New Year attracts a lot of people because it’s a lucky day for them. They really wish to go there and win some money. So I would say one thing, and that I think is true. Once you go away from Hong Kong – no matter where you come from, no matter you move – you are a better jockey. You’re more sharp, you are more clever, because the rules are very strict. You cannot cross another horse if you don’t have two lengths clear. If you move a little bit, you easily easily get suspended, so you have to be sharp. It’s all about the highs, reactive, that’s what I’m called to make a jockey. Once you move from Hong Kong, you’re a better jockey for sure.
Andrew: Hong Kong was amazing, you rode with some of the best jockeys in the world there. Question No. 3: You’re riding with the legend right now. He’s in from Italy now, he’s in Southern California. Frankie Dettori. What is it like? I’m sure you looked up to him a little bit as a kid; I know you just mentioned before he broke his father’s record. What is it like being in the jockey room with a guy like that, knowing that this is his last season as a jockey?
Umberto: Look, it’s sad to hear that Frankie is going to quit at the end of this year. But you know, it’s going to be hard for everybody. And for me, I’m just enjoying every single moment that I spent in the jocks room with him right now because as you mentioned, as a kid from Italy, you only watch one rider. That was him. When I was a kid he was the first jockey for Godolphin, he was winning everything all around the world. I was following him everywhere.
And for me it’s a dream come true to share the room. We’ve got the same valet, we’re laughing every day. And I can’t believe it how Frankie is. It’s amazing. He’s the first guy at the track. He’s the first jockey at the jocks room. I was surprised on the opening day. I said, “what are you doing?” He said, “I arrived here two hours ago.” He was already there for two hours before the first race. And he’s the first one walking to the paddock. I think he’s just now, he’s just enjoying his last year, he really, really wants to let go of everything. But obviously, it’s a privilege to share the room with a guy like Frankie. And unfortunately, as I said, this is his last year.
Andrew: I was lucky enough to meet him at Aqueduct this year when he came in and he won a nice Grade 1 there. And then I saw him again at the Breeders’ Cup when we were chatting. And one thing I found out from sitting next to you and him at the Breeders’ Cup, it’s just the back and forth. He is just like a prankster joking around. He is about to go into a Grade 1 mount, but he’s still smiling. And same with you, smiling all the time. Keeping that light in that, and I love to see that type of that mentality, keeping it light no matter what happens.
Umberto: I think that’s very important. It’s not because you smile and then you know focus once you jump on a horse. You know what you have to do. But the way you go to face the racing, the competition, once you’re going to put down the goggles, it does affect you so. And as I said, Frankie, as a rider, is an example. So you wish to dream, and dreaming to win is what he wanted in his career.
Andrew: So question No. 4. When I speak about your riding style, you’ve won the Santa Anita Derby, Grade 1 on dirt. You’ve won the Shoemaker Mile Stakes, Grade 1 on turf in California. Dirt, turf – you’re a phenomenal rider. The No. 1 thing in your riding, when we look at all the replays, is the timing. Where did this timing skill come from? What do you do? It seems like a lot of times you time it up perfectly to hit them right at the line. What are you doing to prepare? And to really hone that skill? Is that something that you learned in Hong Kong? Your timing just seems like you have a clock in your head that is perfectly on point.
Umberto: Look Andrew, I think you know, the first thing you need is the horse. You always do have to understand, from my point, you have to feel what your horse feels, what your horse tells you to do. I watch a lot of replays, I do a lot of forms, I come back home and most of the time I look at the horses, then the races then I lost instead of doing the races I won, because I want to understand what I did to make the mistake.
I don’t know if it’s the timing, and sometimes it’s natural. But obviously, you know, the fact that and I have a lot of experience all around the world riding with good riders, listening a lot of advice of the biggest jockeys in the world, you know, and you had all this advice together, you put it in together and I think you know, you got a really good combo. But obviously, as I said, the horse most of the time is the one to make a difference. You just have to be sharp, clever. And sometimes you have to be patient to just let your horse have the chance to take you where he wants to take you. You just jump on him, he’s gonna drive you there, no matter what. And sometimes you have to take decisions. You have to go in, you have to go out. You don’t have too much time to react. And to think about it, you just go, you follow. You follow your mind. And you say, OK, let’s go. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t work. But it is what it is.
Andrew: I have to ask any follow up question on that same one, just talking about the Santa Anita Derby. You won a Grade 1 on dirt with Rock Your World. I could pick out a lot of victories you’ve had over your entire career. What was that like, winning a Grade 1 there at Santa Anita Derby. That’s a huge race. What was that like?
Umberto: It was a different feeling. Because since I moved to California, … I couldn’t make my first Grade 1. And obviously, once you have the chance to ride a horse like Rock Your World, like do I have … I knew that the horse could be something special. I rode him the previous time on the grass actually. And I do know then if the horse could have the lead that day in the Santa Anita Derby it could do something special. And that’s what happened. But the feeling was amazing. I mean, obviously, it wasn’t the Kentucky Derby. But still, it was the Santa Anita Derby, it’s an amazing race, and you’re in California. So I was very happy.
Andrew: It’s a huge race in California, top three of the year. So congratulations on that. Last question for you. Question No. 5. I got to ask you about your family life. What is it like? I know you’re married, you have two beautiful kids, I’ve met your son before. I feel like if you follow Umberto on Instagram, you’re gonna know his son’s now into soccer. And I think soccer might have taken over your household a little bit. Maybe the World Cup has an influence, but what is it like, what’s that family relationship like, with having a child and coming back home every day and your wife, does she say, “oh, did you do this?” Do you talk about racing? What’s that whole atmosphere like?
Umberto: No, I mean, my wife understands right away when I cross the door, how my day goes. So it’s very simple. The first one I get criticized for, it’s my son. He just comes to me if I don’t win, he says, “why you don’t win today?” But now he has his first jockeys. His main rider right now is his friend Ricky Gonzalez. He loves Ricky. Every time Ricky won, he is more happy when Ricky won than instead of if I won a race. So most of the time I come back I say, “you see I won?” “Yeah, but I don’t care, Ricky won, so I’m more happy than that.” So. But he’s my first supporter. He loves the soccer, he loves it. Every day, once he comes back from school, he says, “Dad is there any soccer on the TV today?” He really likes it. So it was very tough for us to see the World Cup without Italy, but he’s half French. So it was between.
But you know, it’s very important. I think the support from the family you have every day, when things goes well, also when things doesn’t go in the right way. It’s good to have a huge shoulder, as a wife, take care of you, take care of your business, take care about everything happening to the house, and I have to give a credit to her for this. But also, I really enjoy come back home and spending time with my child because when I come back home, I let my bag outside of the door and everything is outside and the business is outside of the door. So I think you have to enjoy the family and, that’s the one of the most beautiful things in the world. So just enjoy your family when you can.
Andrew: Yeah, I mean, it’s amazing. I follow you on social media, I’ve met you a couple times in person, it seems like you have an amazing support system behind you. And it’s definitely part of your success. You’ve moved continent to continent, and it seems like that support structure has helped you out the whole way. Just one last follow-up on that same question. What if you weren’t a jockey? What would you be doing right now? What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a jockey? Would you be a soccer player? What would Umberto Rispoli be doing right now.
Umberto: I would like to tell you Andrew, I want to be a soccer player. But I wasn’t that good. I mean, I could run a lot but my feet they are no … I wasn’t going to be the Cristiano Ronaldo, the Messi of the situation. But you know, I always I play soccer from 7 to 14, when I was young, and I’m still a big passionate fan of soccer, so I do really like a soccer, I follow all soccer all around the world. And yeah, probably that.
Andrew: Well Umberto, I really appreciate your time today. Congratulations. I know you had a couple of dirt wins this past week. You’ve had some Grade 1s. I saw you at the Breeders’ Cup this weekend this year, you’re off to a nice little start to this year and we hope to see a lot more coming to you. And hopefully we’ll see each other down the road, possibly during this Triple cCrown.
Umberto: It was my pleasure, Andrew, thank you very much. Thanks for having me. And congrats for your Horse Racing Nation, it’s lovely, lovely to follow.