By Michael Cox
When the entire Hong Kong jockey roster gathered in a glitzy Lan Kwai Fong restaurant last week, if you walked in and didn’t know anything about them – their current standings or career achievements – and you were asked which one was champion, then Umberto Rispoli might have been your first guess.
Actually, you probably would have heard Rispoli before you entered the room – the boisterous banter with Irish rider Neil Callan, or when he playfully demanded that fierce rivals – and the actual last two champions – Joao Moreira and Zac Purton sit next to each other for dinner.
Moreira and Purton dominate the results, but they obeyed Ripoli’s order and enjoyed dinner together. It helped that Rispoli was the reason they were all there – for his farewell – but he might have been the only jockey of recent times with the personality to pull this sometimes-fractured and bickering group together.
Rispoli belongs in Hollywood, not Hong Kong, and that’s exactly where the Italian is headed after the best part of seven years based at Sha Tin.
“I am not heading there for a holiday,” Rispoli says over coffee at the Sha Tin Clubhouse before his departure. “I have enjoyed my time here, and I have made a good living and I think I have proven myself. But I am 31 now and need to decide for myself what type of jockey I want to be. The bottom line is I like winning, and I always want to improve, and that is why I want to ride in America.”
The bottom line is I like winning, and I always want to improve, and that is why I want to ride in America.
The dominance of Purton and Moreira means dwindling opportunities for mid-table jockeys. While some jockeys with low strike rates are content to live the comfortable life – with paid-for accommodation on course, the convenient lifestyle of Hong Kong and the solid wage provided by minor-place cheques – Rispoli, with more than a little rockstar in him, isn’t built for finishing fifth.
Rispoli’s wife Kimberley – the daughter of legendary French jockey Gerald Mosse – and their son Hayden, will join the jockey in Arcadia, close to Santa Anita.
It was at the recommendation of Mosse that Rispoli found agent Ron Anderson, who was given a glowing reference of Rispoli from Italy’s greatest-ever rider Frankie Dettori. It was a conversation with long-time friend and former trainer Marco Bozzi that got Rispoli thinking about heading stateside.
“Marco and I go back a long way, and he will always be honest with me, and he asked me what I wanted to do. He suggested America,” Rispoli says. “This is the time to try.”
Rispoli grew up in Napoli’s Vele di Sampia neighbourhood – the first thing about Rispoli wants to say is that “the people are lovely” and a place where he “learned about respect.”
During Rispoli’s teenage years the densely populated area was also the scene of “Scampia feud” as new crime lords attempted to violently wrest control from the Camorra clan.
I am so happy and proud of where I come from. I come from nothing. It’s about loyalty where I am from.”
“Even though my father was a jockey, if you saw where I grew up you would wonder how I grew up to be a jockey, it is the dark side of Napoli,” he said.
This isn’t the part of Lele di Scampia Rispoli wants to focus on though. He looks for the positive and there are other things to learn from a neighbourhood like this: old-school values like the importance of a firm handshake, respect and, ultimately, loyalty.
“Growing up there taught me a lot of things, it’s why sometimes my mouth is big and I don’t let people walk over me, but the biggest thing my family taught me there is respect,” he says. “A shake of the hand is worth more than a signature on piece of paper. I am so happy and proud of where I come from. I come from nothing. It’s about loyalty where I am from.”
That word, loyalty, came up during Rispoli’s exit interviews with media last Sunday after his last ride at Sha Tin.
“It’s true, all around the world and in this business there is not much loyalty,” he told the South China Morning Post. “But in this place, if they don’t change something they are going to lose a lot of people, because I am not the only one.”
“Sure, today I am the one, I am the one packing my stuff up and going, but I can guarantee that there are a lot of people not happy about the system.”
Plenty of jockeys had echoed these sentiments previously, but never on record. That’s Rispoli though, shooting from the hip and speaking from the heart.
You have to go back seven years for Rispoli’s career highlight, during his first make-or-break stay in Hong Kong, but to say his career in there started fast would be oversimplifying things. In fact, his first short term contract late in the 2011-12 term – which came after he broke a long-standing record in his homeland and a successful stint in Japan – actually started with a serious win drought.
When Rispoli rode a double on April 9 2012, he had gone more than 70 races – nearly two months – without a winner, riding mostly long shots. Another double followed, and two weeks later, Rispoli jagged the ride on Japanese raider Rulership.
The G1 QEII Cup win on Rulership – in which Rispoli displayed some incredible nerve to cross from a wide gate – and then showmanship with an iconic pose as he crossed the line, guaranteed a full-time spot on the roster. But it was before that win that Rispoli had won the respect of trainers, turning up each day despite having zero wins.
Rispoli also became famous for overcoming injury. When he bounced like a ball after being slammed into the Happy Valley turf in 2017, tearing knee ligaments and fracturing an anklebone, Rispoli promised he would be back in nine weeks, and was. When he snapped a collarbone in a trial a year later he again called his shot, declaring to trainers “don’t give my rides away” and was back within two weeks with a plate and screws in his shoulder.
Despite his popularity, results had soured somewhat for Rispoli over the last few seasons but on that score, he wasn’t alone. The dominance of Moreira and Purton – who have won more than one-third of the races between them this season – leaves the rest of the riders fighting over scraps.
When a mid-table jockey does get on a horse that shows promise, running home to finish third or fourth, the ride is usually then offered to the top two riders – hence Rispoli’s “loyalty” jibes last Sunday. Many a top-ranked jockey has departed, dispirited and their contact cut short, but Rispoli leaves on his own terms and with head held high. And despite that swipe at Hong Kong’s toxic racing culture on the way out, he wants to look forward. A student of the game, when asked about riding in America he turns racing fan boy for a few moments as he rattles off the names of jockeys he will be riding against in a matter of weeks.
“Velazquez, the Ortiz brothers, Rosario, Castellano,” he says. “I love racing, it’s all I have ever wanted to do, so I watched these guys for many years. I am honoured to be riding against them.”
“From that moment I thought of going to America I was up late every night studying racing over there – and studying every guy individually. Everybody there can teach me something. I have to be so respectful, I am the new guy and at the same time, I have some capacity to do things and these top jockeys make me a better jockey because they will be teaching me something.”
I have to be so respectful, I am the new one and everybody there can teach me something
So how will Rispoli’s style – honed on predominantly turf, and over the last few years, almost exclusively right-handed, transfer to Californian dirt?
US-based racing executive Pat Cummings, now with the Thoroughbred Ideas Foundation, but who watched Rispoli first hand in Hong Kong in his time with the HKJC, said it won’t just be force of personality that makes the jockey a hit in the states.
“Any jockey that has spent considerable time in Hong Kong would translate well to America because the reliance on speed is similar,” Cummings said. “Sometimes jockeys that come direct from Europe need to adapt to an American style which is much faster earlier in races. Well, that is racing in Hong Kong, and Umberto will have a chance to reflect that style straight away, which makes his migration to America one of the more intriguing tack shifts in memory.”
“I have always watched the best jockeys from the world and steal a piece of what they do. I have ridden all around the world; Italy, France, England – this is the last piece of the puzzle,” Rispoli says. “I am excited.”