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A Grade 1 win in California last week has the Italian rider in hot form going into the World All-Star Jockeys challenge at Sapporo.
Umberto Rispoli has been riding the crest of a wave at beachside Del Mar of late, but the tantalising lure of an invitation to compete in the World All-Star Jockeys at Sapporo this weekend sees him riding in Japan after more than nine years away.
“It’s been a long time, but it’s like I never left, it’s a good feeling to be back,” he tells Asian Racing Report over the phone from Hokkaido.
He has just had a session in the gym: a 45-minute run, plus workout, to keep his muscles hard and his weight right with only two days until he gets legged up in Japan for the first time since he snared a treble from five rides at Nakayama on 2 March 2014.
He has five rides this Saturday and nine on Sunday, but the four races that make up the World All-Star Jockeys (two races each day) are his primary focus.
The contest will pitch him against JRA stars Yutaka Take, Yuga Kawada, Christophe Lemaire, Keita Tosaki, Takeshi Yokoyama, Mirai Iwata, Ryusei Sakai and the NAR’s Minoru Miyagawa, as well as fellow overseas challengers Alexis Badel, Luke Morris, Rachel King, Marie Velon, and his old comrade and competitor Joao Moreira.
Rispoli is looking forward to being in the jockeys’ room with Moreira for the first time since the Italian chose to leave Hong Kong in December 2019, and they have already taken the opportunity to catch up over dinner.
“Joao is doing well,” he says. “I see him happy and I see him looking different in the way he has less stress in his face: Hong Kong never gave him a chance to relax. We talked and it was good to see him again; we shared the jockey room for a long time, we played soccer together in those days, so we shared our good memories about those times in Hong Kong.”
Moreira’s relationship with Japanese racing is relatively well-known, but Rispoli was turning heads there before Moreira was given his chance. It was during the early months of 2011 that Rispoli forged memories and created emotional bonds in Japan that remain strong.
That first of three short-term spells on the JRA circuit yielded 28 wins and three Group race triumphs: the G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen on Kinshasa No Kiseki, the G2 Kyoto Kinen on To The Glory, and the G2 Nikkei Shinshun Hai in tandem with Rulership.
He has been to see Rulership this week at Shadai, in company with Lemaire, and it was an emotional reunion with the horse on which he also won the G1 QEII Cup at Sha Tin in 2012. That success was a turning point for Rispoli, elevating a difficult first spell in Hong Kong and paving the way for a seven-year on-and-off connection with the city.
“Rulership was the horse that gave me the best win in my career so far, so I will always be grateful to him for everything he has ever done for me,” he says.
“I had goosebumps and tears in my eyes when I saw him again. Even talking now, I have goosebumps because that horse is so special to me. Seeing him a quiet, good boy, when he was a nightmare to ride – he was not easy to take to the gate and he was very naughty at the gate, he was very strong during the race – but when he walked out, I could see a more mature horse and he enjoyed the attention; I was so happy to see him.”
The JRA’s invitation to Rispoli to return to Japan for the World All-Star Jockeys weekend was first extended last year, but, he says, he had just returned to California after a hard time trying to break through at Churchill Downs and he was trying to reverse the damage that had done to his business. When the JRA asked again this past spring, he was keen to take up the offer.
Yet even now the timing isn’t exactly ideal and his presence at Sapporo represents a sacrifice. His position in California is buoyant, he is second in the Del Mar standings with 20 wins, four less than leader Juan Hernandez, and he bagged the G1 Del Mar Oaks last weekend on Anisette; he has taken five wins from his last 11 rides.
“I’ve been doing so well these past weeks that trainers wanted me to cancel going to Japan,” he says. “Even my agent Matt Nakatani said he didn’t think it was the right time, because I am second in the Del Mar championship.
“I was excited to return to Japan though and it’s great being here, meeting the Japanese people again. The target is to win the jockeys’ challenge, but maybe I can make some more connections as well, and maybe they will have horses for the Breeders’ Cup because it’s my home town, Santa Anita.”
He gives plenty of credit for his recent success to his new agent Nakatani, and his summer form is a welcome turnaround from what he describes as a ‘tough’ winter campaign.
“We had jockeys come from overseas and sometimes the jockeys that are there for 12 months and work hard every day are forgotten. Johnny (Velazquez) was in town, so were Flavien (Prat) and Frankie (Dettori), but wherever I’ve been around the world, that kind of competition helps to improve a jockey.
“When I get back maybe I will have the chance to fight for the title. My last five weekends at Del Mar have been good and I’m very happy with that.
By his own admission, his four allotted rides for the All-Star contest do not make him a likely victor, but he also notes that with rain forecast, form can be upturned. Win or lose, Rispoli is relishing the chance to be back for a short visit and sees only positives to being in Japan.
“I’m riding a wave and just had a Group 1 winner,” he adds. “Riding this jockey challenge in Japan might give me an extra boost; maybe it will help me do something really good when I return to California.”
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