It was less than two years ago when Flavien Prat and Umberto Rispoli staged a stirring race for the Del Mar jockey title that wasn’t decided until the final day of the 2020 summer meet.
Prat prevailed 50-49 by winning the second-to-last race of the shortened 27-day season and, at the time, it was assumed that Prat, a 29-year-old native of France, and Rispoli, a 33-year -old Italian, would be waging many more battles at Del Mar and Santa Anita.
The two jockeys announced last week they are moving their business east, starting with Keeneland and continuing in New York for the Belmont and Saratoga meets. It’s a development that changes the whole landscape of the Southern California riding colony.
Prat said he will be back at Santa Anita for the 2022-23 winter-spring meet, but until then there will be a lot more riding opportunities for seasoned veterans like Tyler Baze and Drayden Van Dyke. Leading apprentice Diego Herrera and Abel Cedillo, among the top six in the rider standings, could also receive a boost.
“I don’t think it will necessarily make us work harder, but it will give us way more opportunities, I would assume,” said Brandon O’Bryan, Van Dyke’s agent. “With a couple of the big-name guys leaving town, everyone moves up in the pecking order a few spots.”
Prat said his move was based on a desire to win an Eclipse Award. He enjoyed a career year in 2021, winning 246 races for $23.2 million in earnings, fifth best in the nation. He was nominated for an Eclipse as the nation’s top jockey for the first time in his career, finishing third behind Joel Rosario and Irad Ortiz, Jr.
“It feels like if you want to give yourself a chance to get an Eclipse Award that you need to go to New York,” Prat told the Daily Racing Form. “That’s just the way it is. I never thought I’d leave here, to be honest.”
Prat’s been the SoCal’s dominant rider since relocating here for Santa Anita’s 2014-15 winter spring meet.
He’s won the past five winter-spring jockey titles, and holds a commanding 62-36 lead over runner-up Juan Hernandez for a sixth heading into Friday’s eight-race program. He’s won or shared four consecutive fall titles at the Arcadia track and earned the past three Del Mar summer titles.
Brad Pegram will continue to serve as Prat’s agent in New York.
Rispoli will be represented by Mike Sellitto, who also handles the book for Junior Alvarado. He moved his business to the Southland from Hong Kong in late 2019 and told the Daily Racing Form he is relocating for the challenge of riding among a deep roster of jockeys in New York. The Belmont begins April 28.
“Losing both Prat and Rispoli is definitely a tough one-two punch for the SoCal circuit to take,” Santa Anita morning-line maker and racing historian Jon White said in an email. “At least the good news for Southern California racing fans is that Prat’s agent has said that the plan is for Santa Anita to be where Prat rides in the winter.”
Prat’s move spurs memories of another leading rider departing the Southland when at the peak of his game.
“I do think this is somewhat similar to Joel Rosario a number of years ago,” White said. “Rosario won a flock of titles on the SoCal circuit, but then the time came when he decided to relocate back east.”
When Rosario departed in 2012, he’d won three consecutive Del Mar summer riding titles, a Santa Anita winter-spring championship and was third at the Hollywood Park summer meet. He’s elevated his career even farther since relocating, and Prat hopes to do the same.
“I think Prat was spot on as far as if you want to win an Eclipse Award, New York might be the spot to go,” O’Bryan said.
Of course, there’s also the added incentive of more opportunities. Santa Anita currently runs only three days a week, and Belmont operates four days a week. Saratoga races five days a week, which means much more exposure and the chance to pad earnings totals. The purse structure in New York is also higher.
O’Bryan, who also handles the business for Jessica Pyfer, the 2021 winner of an Eclipse Award as top apprentice jockey, might not like the current situation in Southern California with less racing and shorter fields, but he’s also not concerned about his own future .
“I’m young and I’ve been at a few different tracks across the country the last couple of years,” he said. “I have the ability and I’ve made connections with other trainers across the country that if I did have to leave I don’t think I would have any problem leaving.”
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