America is the tonic Umberto Rispoli needed

Three years on from a dismal night in Hong Kong, the ebullient Italian champion is enjoying life at Del Mar’s summer meet.

Umberto Rispoli at Del Mar. (Photo by Grant Courtney)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


It was around the midnight hour when Umberto Rispoli sat by the bed in his Sha Tin apartment. He was a man defeated. Tears welled in his eyes and broke in silent streams as the aching frustration of his situation overcame him.  

The date was June 26, 2019 and the career he had developed over a lifetime was caught in a downward spiral he was struggling to halt, let alone reverse. He was done with the Hong Kong grind.

“I was ready to give up because I was really on the floor,” Rispoli tells The Report. “I was doing everything correctly: I was being professional, I was riding lightweight, I was working hard and training hard but people over there see you as a number.

“I swear, everything was going through my mind and I thought, ‘I can’t keep going on like this’. That night I decided I had to change something in my life or I was going to quit.”

Earlier that evening he had arrived at Happy Valley for only three rides at the Wednesday night races. It was that time of the season when, with two and a half weeks left until summer break, the thoughts of most participants had already half-turned to the holiday flight out and the chance to refresh after an unrelenting 10-month slog.

He sat in the jockeys’ room as his peers went out for the first race, and watched as Matthew Chadwick took the confidence-boosting spoils. Race two was his opportunity, aboard Flame Lily, a horse he had ridden to second place two weeks prior; but the gelding was third this time.


Umberto Rispoli riding Flame Lily during barrier trials at Sha Tin in 2018. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

That June was hot, even for Hong Kong. The heat and humidity sapped the already demoralised Rispoli and stifled his energy, further dimming the usually effervescent Italian’s natural spark. Race six brought his second ride of the night: last of 12 on a $16 shot. Race eight offered no better than an $18 chance: again, last, this time beaten almost 14 lengths.

“I wasn’t happy at all in Hong Kong,” he says.

It had been so different seven years earlier when the former Italian champion stood high in his irons and saluted the Sha Tin crowd aboard the victorious Japanese raider Rulership at the conclusion of the G1 QEII Cup. That success lifted Rispoli’s profile and ensured his place at the Hong Kong table with annual winter contracts.   

But, after opting to ride full-time in the city from September 2016, support had waned; his situation was not helped by injuries that left him sidelined, notably a broken knee suffered in a fall at Happy Valley in November 2016, which halted him before he could build momentum.   

“Hong Kong is a tough place and if the racing doesn’t go well it goes in and spikes at your brain. The life around you is not good in that situation” he says.

“You are your own agent there: you have to find the rides by yourself. I was working hard at that but then the people don’t give you rides because you don’t have winners. The owners don’t understand that you don’t have winners because you don’t have any opportunities to have a winner. When your horse is 99-1, that makes life complicated.”

Umberto Rispoli wins the 2012 Audemars Piguet QEII Cup aboard Rulership. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Rispoli was tired of the losing routine – familiar to all but the most esteemed jockeys – of putting in the hard work on a horse in the mornings, riding it first-up when it was in need of fitness, then being jocked-off next time when it was primed to win.  

“You can give your heart to the track and you know you have the skills but then still you’re not getting the breaks, so at some point you say ‘what am I doing here?’”

As he sat at his bedside, tormented, his phone rang. It was an old friend, Marco Bozzi, a Rome-based bloodstock agent.

“What are you doing there?” Bozzi asked.

“To be honest, I don’t know.”

“Would you like to go to America?”

Raised in Scampia

Rispoli, 33, was raised in Scampia, an urban housing project on Naples’ northern rim. His world was dominated by the massive, greying white towers and triangular structure of the Vele di Scampia, which gained pop culture fame as the setting for the rooted-in-reality, brutal TV drama Gomorrah and the violent film of the same name.

Built in the 1960s and 70s, the project was a notorious warren of organised crime and poverty, a grim symbol of how mid-20th century community housing concepts in brave new structures could fail with horrible consequences. The Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia-type gang, ruled the walkways and corridors. 

Rispoli is a positive product of that tough environment: he is not a shrinking violet prone to bouts of self-pity. He is proud of his southern Italian roots and walks with his head high, his countenance naturally friendly; he has a strut to his step, is passionate in conversation, and wears, like a badge, a straight-talking, look-me-in-the-eye approach to life.

“I came from the white buildings,” he says. “Once you see that, you understand my personality.

QE II Cup glory. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Rispoli celebrates equalling Frankie Dettori's long-standing Italian record of 229 wins in a season in 2009. (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

Rispoli celebrates a Sha Tin winner in 2018. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)

“In a neighbourhood like that, you have to be like this or people are going to walk on your head. But also, you have to be wise: in business, in sport, you can’t think that everyone is trying to walk on you but at the same time, you don’t want to be the stupid one, the one people are playing with, throwing you in and out.”

It was passion and pride, not weakness, that formed his tears that night in Sha Tin; and a fear that the hopelessness of his predicament might push him away from the one thing he had ever wanted to do.

My intent was to be a jockey from day one.

His father, Gaetano, had been a track rider at Naples racecourse and the young Rispoli sat on a horse before he could walk. He was riding by age seven and at 10 years old, he rode trackwork for the first time, on the quietest horse in the barn.

“I couldn’t even handle it because I was probably only 35 kilos,” he recalls. “He was a sprinter and he ran off with me for 200 yards and then he stopped because he was tired already. But I had so much excitement, I’d never been so fast in my life. I felt like a flag on a roof blowing from the wind and this horse was running away with me and I couldn’t hold him. It was fun.

“My intent was to be a jockey from day one.”

Far east to far west

A Santa Anita sunrise, spreading rays of reddened gold over the San Gabriel Mountains as horses exercise, or that same sun, setting at beachside Del Mar after races, are a long way from Scampia in more ways than the measurement of miles.           

Rispoli took Bozzi’s late-night advice and his old friend put him in contact with Ron Anderson. They spoke on the phone and a little more than a month later, the two-time Italian champion and North America’s biggest jockey agent met at Saratoga.

“I want to meet people and see them in the face when I have to make such a humongous decision for my career, when I have to move my family from one world to another,” says Rispoli.

“I met him and inside two minutes I knew that the guy was going to change my life. When probably the best agent in America tells you that he thinks you have the talent and skills to be successful there, you take it as a compliment and you make the move.”

When probably the best agent in America tells you that he thinks you have the talent and skills to be successful there, you take it as a compliment and you make the move.

Rispoli was all set but he had already applied for and been granted a contract in Hong Kong from the start of the 2019-20 season. He decided to honour that while waiting for his papers.

By November, the documents were ready and so were he and his wife, Kimberley, along with their young son Hayden. He gave the HKJC one month’s notice and departed in mid-December. He had 122 Hong Kong wins on his record but in three months that term he had bagged only five.

With Anderson’s guidance, Rispoli got to work in California and the fruits were obvious. In 2020 he had 126 wins for prize money in excess of US$7 million. Last year he improved to 130 and more than US$10 million; and, so far this year, he has 46 wins on the board for earnings of US$4.2 million.

Rispoli boots home Direct Line at Del Mar. (Photo by Grant Courtney)

Umberto Rispoli makes his way to the starting gate before the 2020 Breeders Cup Turf. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

Jockey Umberto Rispoli aboard Smooth Like Strait leads the field to the first turn during the 2021 Breeders' Cup Mile at Del Mar. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Anderson and Rispoli parted so that Anderson could take on the superstar client John Velazquez and his current agent is Tony Matos. He has won four Grade 1s in the US to go alongside his Group 1 scores in Japan, France, Italy and Hong Kong.

The California dream

Rispoli is one of a good number of European expatriate jockeys in the US these days. Also riding at the current Del Mar meet is Frenchman Florent Geroux, and their friend Flavien Prat is sixth in the standings at Saratoga after making the move east from California.

A cross-country relocation was on the cards for Rispoli, too, with New York the destination earlier this year. But he diverted to Kentucky and the Keeneland spring meet, followed by Churchill Downs. He placed in the Kentucky Oaks but failed to win a race and headed back to his family in California, which by now included a second son, Aramis, born in March.  

A fresh start in America has done wonders for Umberto Rispoli. (Photo by Grant Courtney)

“Honestly, I have no idea what happened with Kentucky,” he says. “Maybe a mistake I made was that I changed plan and moved to Keeneland just the week before the meet started, which you should never do: the jockeys are booked two or three weeks in advance for that meeting so going there with no horses meant I was riding longshots and when that’s the case you’ve got to be very lucky to ride a winner. It’s hard enough on the good horses.

“After I broke my knee in Hong Kong, I waited for four months to win a race. This time, I thought, I’m not waiting that long again, better go back to California!”

His return has paid off. He is second in the Del Mar standings with nine wins, four behind the leader Juan Hernandez.

He has a leading candidate for the Del Mar Oaks to look forward to, having landed the San Clemente Stakes on Del Mar’s opening day aboard Bellabel. Earlier on the card he enjoyed a sweet run navigating traffic to win the Oceanside Stakes on Balnikhov, which was captured on his helmet camera. As Rispoli called out, the gaps just kept opening and his weakening opponents enabled a clear passage: it was different to the give-no-inch mentality of a Class 4 around Happy Valley.

“Look, Hong Kong was a great city to live in and the Jockey Club gives you things, so the costs are low, like a car, insurance, a place to live, that’s fair enough, that’s really fair. But it’s not a fair situation that they know what you’re doing every day. You need that switch off,” he says.

Ultimately, living and working on track at Sha Tin, within the same compound as most other jockeys, as well as trainers, became too oppressive for Rispoli.

“You are always on the radar. You can’t go to the beach with your family or whatever you want to do without people tracking what you are doing. There isn’t much privacy in that life,” he continues.

“And it’s not healthy to see the same people every day and every night. You have trouble with a trainer because a race didn’t go well the day before and you live in the same building; you have to see him back in the morning begging for rides, and then you see him in the afternoon again and he doesn’t say hi because he’s not happy with the way that race went. People don’t even have time or space to let things go and move on.”

But that is now behind him. The strut is back, the smile is broad, the eyes are bright. Rispoli is winning again.

“Really, I’m happy, 100 percent happy, because my family is happy,” he says. “California is a good place to live, it’s sunshine every day, it’s a pretty expensive place but nice things have a cost.”



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