Magnifico! Italian trio brings flair to first half of the season
Passionate, spontaneous and adored by Asian racing fans, Italians Mirco Demuro, Umberto Rispoli and Nicola Pinna have been a breath of fresh air this season – part of a new wave of talent that has helped to further rejuvenate the Hong Kong jockey ranks.
Of all the emerging sub plots to a fascinating first half of the season, one that has perhaps snuck under the radar has been the influence the trio of up-and-comers – if only for a short burst – adding showmanship and a fun point of difference to proceedings.
Another Italian, Frankie Dettori, personifies the flair of continental European riders, but his countrymen made the most of relatively limited opportunities this term and look set to carry the green, white and red flag forward when the 43-year-old legend eventually retires.
Sunday's Chinese New Year meeting was the first at which Demuro failed to notch a winner since arriving last month, Rispoli’s short second stint with 10 wins showed he is growing in confidence and, after a tentative start, Pinna rode five winners and earned enough gold stars to expect a return invite.
Demuro, who has just turned 35, is a hard-working lightweight with a refreshing attitude. He has that underdog fighter’s mentality of wanting to get better, forged through years of battling in Japan with its unfamiliar culture, language and politics.
After he won the Group One Stewards’ Cup on Blazing Speed, reporters at trackwork were ready to write glowingly of the lucky new boy, when he gave a glimpse of what made him tick with some revealing, self-effacing quotes.
“I’m doing well? Do you think so? I'm not so sure,” he said with a contorted face, indicating disappointment regarding his efforts at Happy Valley the previous night.
“I have won races, but I have been stuck wide in some races and got away with it, but I cannot all the time. I was slow away a few times last night, that is not good enough and I must improve. Every part of my riding needs to be good here. I cannot be known as someone who misses the start.”
Words turned into action the following Sunday when Demuro bounced Malayan Pearl out of the gates in a 2,000m race and straight into the box seat, resulting in the horse recording his second win in a row.
Demuro was responsible for one the most spine-tingling moments in the past few years when his moving salute to the Japanese Emperor and Empress sent a massive Tokyo Racecourse crowd into delirium.
The Emperor and Empress were making a rare public appearance at the 2012 Tenno Sho (Autumn) – it was just the second time in over a century the royals had attended the race named in their owner and Demuro’s reverence probably gave him fan-favourite status for life (if winning an emotional 2011 Dubai World Cup on Victoire Pisa hadn’t already).
But also earned a rap over the knuckles from stewards. As he returned to scale, Demuro stopped in front of the Emperor and Empress, dismounted and, after removing his helmet, knelt down in a show of respect. Cue goosebumps. On a day when victims of the 2011 tsunami were remembered with sombre parades, it was a fitting tribute. The crowd went wild.
Crowd’s eye view (watch from 9:40):
“I was not supposed to jump off the horse, it isn’t allowed in the rules," Demuro said. "But after the win, I pulled up on the horse, the Emperor is here so I have to do something special. Ten years before I had watched a replay on YouTube where a jockey bowed on the horse so I thought, “I cannot do the same, this needs to be different”. So I thought I would jump off and kneel. The outrider did not know what I was doing, they thought there was something wrong, then the stewards called me in. But 120,000 people making that type of noise was amazing."
It seems like Demuro is a good fit for Hong Kong – he even has a belief in luck and good fortune he shares with the superstitious local fans. His “lucky charm” is a ladybeetle and its image is featured on his tack and riding gear.
Rispoli was stalled by problems with the stewards, but he still rode 10 winners and has missed at least half a dozen possible winners after he returned to Japan.
If you listen to Richard Gibson, Rispoli is well on his way to emulating Gerald Mosse – a big-race rider in Europe who splits his season with winter stints at Sha Tin. “I'm amazed he doesn't get more opportunities here. He is one of the most exciting young riders in Europe," Gibson said after Rispoli won on Great Charm in November. “That was a brilliant ride from an underrated jockey.”
Pinna had the look of a lost puppy dog when he arrived, sinking in the backwash of fellow rookie Karis Teetan’s lightning start and then further shuffled down the pecking order as the European late arrivals took up their positions. Oh, and then Joao Moreira ruined everything for everyone else who likes winning.
The youthful Italian showed tenacity to hang in there before leaving last week, especially after many predicted he would bail early due to a lack of opportunities – just as fellow rookie Colm O’Donoghue did after being starved out of an overcrowded jockeys’ room. One key is that Pinna didn’t make any enemies, although his lack of confidence in English skills made life more difficult.
As well as creating challenges with booking rides, Pinna’s rudimentary non-native language skills reportedly created a tense, but in hindsight, funny moment in Kim Kelly’s all-too-serious stewards’ room.
Pinna has a habit of answering questions he doesn’t understand with a blunt and somewhat startling “what?” – rather than a more civislised “pardon me”, answering in the manner if insulted. So when Pinna failed to understand a question from Kelly, he delivered a beautifully timed “what?”. Taken aback, Kelly apparently replied with a “pardon” of his own, which Pinna again misheard and delivered another “what?”.
If not for the peacemaking intervention of another jockey, explaining that Pinna didn’t understand what was being said and wasn’t picking a fight, it could have escalated like the famous nun scene from the Blues Brothers, with Kelly taking a cane to the youngster.
The 25-year-old Pinna will be back, with more confidence, and more tact for dealing with the stewards’ panel. Hopefully, Rispoli and Demuro continue to test the stipes’ blood pressure, and to further woo the Sha Tin faithful.