By David Joseph/Gulfstream Park
USA: Luca Panici has maintained a low profile while establishing himself with Gulfstream Park horsemen as a solid, steady and smart jockey since leaving Italy for a new adventure in the United States.
The 46-year-old Milan native, however, will take centre stage on Saturday at Belmont Park, where he will compete in his first Triple Crown race riding Sole Volante in the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes.
“He’s a tremendous horse,” says Panici. “We have a lot of confidence. He’s one of the best three-year-olds in the USA. It’s very exciting and I’m going there to enjoy it.”
The son of a jockey, Panici grew up playing football with Frankie Dettori across the road from the local racetrack.
Dettori, four years his senior, inspired Panici with his success as a jockey at the age of 16, as well as the subsequent fame and fortune he earned in England and across the world.
Panici went on to ride more than 500 winners in Italy, but racing in the US first caught his attention in 1996, when he spent a winter in South Florida galloping for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for free in exchange for a single fifth-placed mount.
Panici returned to South Florida the following winter to gallop for trainer Gary Sciacca, then rode sporadically at Calder and Gulfstream for several years before making a permanent move to the US in 2009.
He now has 677 victories to his name in North America, none more important than Sole Volante’s triumph in the G3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs in February.
Panici has been involved in Sole Volante’s development right from the start, breezing him for trainer Patrick Biancone prior to riding him to victory in his debut over Gulfstream Park West’s turf course last October.
“I used to work him before he ran,” recalls Panici. “I worked him a couple of times on the grass and he was amazing.
“Mr. Biancone, from the first day, was sure he would handle both grass and dirt. When we worked him on the dirt, he showed the same ability. We figured we had a really good horse.”
After breaking through with victory in the Sam F. Davis, Sole Volante staged an impressive rally from 11th to finish second behind King Guillermo in the Tampa Bay Derby, before the coronavirus pandemic halted racing at most racetracks and forced the Kentucky Derby to be postponed until September 5.
Sole Volante continued to train at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County before returning to action in a stakes-quality optional claiming allowance at on June 10.
Rating kindly for Panici, Sole Volante trailed his five rivals as stablemate Ete Indien set a contested pace, made a wide sweep into the stretch and got up to win by three-quarters of a length under a hand ride.
“There was a lot of pace which is very good for him,” says Panici. “Even at Tampa, when we won the Sam Davis, there was a lot of pace where he could relax behind.
“Last time, it was the same way. I got lucky there was only a six-horse field, so I didn’t have any kind of trouble. He has a very, very professional mind. It was a nice finish, beating the horse that ran second in the Florida Derby.”
Panici’s successful association with Biancone hasn’t been limited to Sole Volante’s exploits. The veteran jockey has become a trusted member of the Biancone team, breezing and regularly riding Ete Indien and Kelsey’s Cross, whom he guided to an eye-catching stakes triumph on June 6.
“Mr. Biancone has won two or three Arc de Triomphes,” says Panici. “Winning two or three Arc de Triomphes is like winning two or three Kentucky Derbies, here. It’s the most difficult race in Europe.
“When you ride for the best, it’s pretty easy. I’m confident in him and he’s confident in me. We’re doing pretty good together.”