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A fractured shoulder blade has sidelined Ryan Curatolo, but the Frenchman is on the mend and looking forward to a year-closing contract to ride in Singapore.
Ryan Curatolo doesn’t often stay in one place for long. The well-travelled Frenchman recently touched down in Singapore for a late season stint after a short-term contract on the NAR (National Association of Racing) circuit, but a brief return to Japan could be on the cards.
That is, if the fractured scapula he suffered in a September 4 fall at Oi racecourse heals in time. Like all good jockeys, he is leaning towards the optimistic side of hopeful on that one and had some cryotherapy treatment at the weekend to help accelerate the healing.
“I’m feeling good now,” he says. “I’m hoping to be riding again in two or three weeks. The scapula is not broken: I checked it with the doctor in Tokyo and he said it’s a small fracture, but obviously I cannot ride like that.
“They said six weeks out, but with the cryotherapy I’m hoping only four weeks so let’s see how I feel, it all depends on my condition; if I am happy with my recovery, I’m hoping to ride in the championship at Morioka.”
That would be a potential ride in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai: reward for the success he had in his recent short spell in Japan. Curatolo posted 15 wins through August into September, mostly at Oi but also at Urawa and Kawasaki. That followed a short stop-off in Macau for Derby day in mid-July.
The enthusiasm in his tone is a dead giveaway that he enjoyed his second spell riding in Japan, mostly at Oi’s Tokyo City Keiba (TCK); his first stint a few years back garnered 29 wins.
“I really like the experience in Japan and the people I met are very nice, really lovely people,” he says, adding that he had been invited back previously but the Covid pandemic had scuppered those plans.
“Where I was riding, in TCK, it’s a really nice racetrack and the atmosphere is good. It’s all on the dirt and I started out racing in America when I was young, so it’s not a problem for me. A lot of jockeys from Europe don’t like the kickback, but I’m fine with it.”
However, the ‘local’ council administered NAR is also a tough environment, a place for those strong of mind as well as body. Jockeys must remain strictly on-track during the five-days-a-week racing programme, and that makes its ‘big brother,’ the centrally-governed JRA look like a picnic by comparison, with its jockeys ordinarily locked down only from Friday night through Sunday.
“This is the hard part, you must be locked in from Sunday night to Friday when you’re there, because the racing is Monday to Friday and the local rule is you stay on the track, inside the racetrack. This means you have no fun or contact with the outside world during that time, but at the same time, it’s like you refresh your mind completely,” Curatolo continues.
“It can be hard because sometimes you feel like going out and you cannot, so you don’t really do anything outside of the racetrack. But inside you have a gym, a jacuzzi, sauna, a kitchen, so it’s a very nice facility. I was impressed.”
And the early starts didn’t get him down either.
“Trackwork starts very early, it starts at 2:20 in the morning,” he says. “I’d be in my room at the racetrack and at 1:30am I would hear the horses going to the track. I could see them start walking around the track, so you can hear them.
He laughs at the memory and adds, “That was kind of like my alarm, you know.”
Curatolo is evidently impressed with Japan and enjoys the NAR, and his enthusiasm goes up a notch when he talks about a horse he hasn’t even ridden, the circuit’s star galloper, the ‘Dirt Triple Crown’ winner Mick Fire.
“He’s a really good horse, Mick Fire, he’s a freak,” he says. “The horse he keeps beating, Hero Call, he won the big race last time by six or seven lengths, and he also beat Mandarin Hero who was second in the Santa Anita Derby, so that’s a good line.”
Curatolo got the leg up on Mandarin Hero in the Kuroshio Hai on August 16 – regular pilot Takayuki Yano suffered a serious leg injury eight days prior – but his mount was second behind Mick Fire’s whipping boy Hero Call.
“Mick Fire is a strong horse, his level is pretty high, so I want to see that horse running in the big races: and his jockey (Norifumi Mikamoto) as well, he’s a very good jockey on the NAR circuit.
“The Japanese trainers are very sharp and so are the jockeys. I was riding with some very good jockeys, they’re very fit: they only race on the dirt and that takes a lot out of you. You have to be very fit when you’re riding seven or eight races on the dirt every day.”
Curatolo, 31, had his first experience of dirt racing in the United States shortly after passing through the French apprentice school at Chantilly: he was an Eclipse Award nominee as an apprentice riding out of Florida and New York, and has since ridden around the world, with spells short and a bit longer in the UAE, Qatar, Korea, Macau, Singapore, Japan and California, as well as some experience riding in Bahrain and four rides in Hong Kong.
He was based in California, riding at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos, from November 2021 until February this year, and all told he has ridden 240 winners Stateside (55 wins in 2022), going back to his early days in 2010. But east Asia and Singapore, where his fiancée Dayle is from, seem to have a strong pull on him: 44 wins in Japan, 35 in Singapore, 94 in Macau, and a couple in South Korea.
He also had two rides as a raw apprentice in his native France but left for the ‘Sunshine State’ at age 17. He had grown up in Marseille, but he had a connection to Miami as a young child, through his father, who managed a hotel there.
“I would go back and forth with my mother when I was young, we used to go to Miami each summer and visit him,” he explains. But then, when Curatolo was four years old, tragedy hit the family.
“We were supposed to relocate to Miami when I was a really young kid but my mother passed away, she had cancer, unfortunately,” he explains. “My father had to move back to Marseille and I grew up with him there. He raised me and my sister until we turned 18 and then we moved to Miami after that, with my father, because he has a green card. So, I moved to Miami with him, when I was 17 actually, and I started my career there.”
He rode 129 winners in the US in 2011, but thereafter, with his claim gone, his numbers dropped to 28 and 33 wins in 2012 and 2013. Then he moved on, and he has kept on moving for the most part.
But his ambitions go beyond that of an international ‘journeyman’. He has enjoyed big-race wins in Qatar and Macau, but he has not nailed a major prize in a senior jurisdiction: he has three G3 wins in the US and the G3 UAE 2,000 Guineas in Dubai. Like any professional athlete, he wants to taste success in the biggest contests in the top arenas.
“I have a lot of ambitions and I have experience, but it all depends on the opportunities that are provided to me,” he says. “Of course, I would love to ride in Hong Kong one day but it depends if they accept the application; if the chance comes I would love to give it a try.
“I think Japan and Hong Kong are the two places that are really amazing, and in Hong Kong it’s more a speed type of racing, where the pace is quite fast, which is similar to America, so hopefully one day an opportunity is given and I can try that.”
Putting aside his possible brief return to Japan next month, his focus for now is Singapore, and, for a jockey whose career is so transient, the looming closure in October 2024 feels a long way off.
“To be honest, racing is still on, so I’m going to go there and focus on that and try to win races as usual. I’m going to try to make the most of it in the time that I have there; that’s all I can do,” he says.
And, although Singapore is unlikely to be anything more than another temporary stay, at least this location will have a feel of ‘home’ about it.
“My fiancée is here with me, she’s been following me around for five years,” he adds. “Being in Singapore is nice because this year we can spend Christmas here with her family.”
After that, the world is one of unfulfilled opportunities and Curatolo will seek out the next.
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