Saudi Cup drama as star jockeys John Velazquez and Umberto Rispoli miss out over last-minute COVID hitch

Horse Racing Umberto Rispoli jockey
Umberto Rispoli: ‘devastated’ at having to miss the ride on Max Player in the Saudi Cup. Photo courtesy of Saudi Cup

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By Jon Lees

Saudi Arabia: John Velazquez and Umberto Rispoli, both due to ride leading US hope in the $20 million Saudi Cup, will be absent from the world’s richest horse race after missing their flights.

Velazquez, who had the mount on Tacitus, blamed flight cancellations, and Italian Rispoli, now a leading rider on the US west coast, said a change in Covid requirements led to him being taken off the plane in California.

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William Buick will now replace Velazquez on the Bill Mott-trained runner and Mickael Barzalona will take over on Rispoli’s mount Max Player, trained by Steve Asmussen.

Early reports claimed Velazquez had completed part of the journey but had been held up in Spain after Mike Smith deputised for him in the International Jockeys Challenge and won the first race on Friday. But Velazquez refuted this in a tweet.

Rispoli described how he was already in his seat on the plane when he was asked to disembark over a change to COVID requirements – which means he misses out on trainer Steve Asmussen’s runner in the main event and stablemate Cowan, his intended ride in the Saudi Derby.

Rispoli said he was “devastated” at not being allowed to travel and apologised to connections for not being in Riyadh on Saturday; former jockey Gary Stevens later tweeted that he had been taken off the same flight.

In a video posted on Friday morning, Rispoli said: “Yesterday there was an issue about the ticket. The ticket was cancelled when I was at the airport for three hours.

“Today I was ready to fly,” he added. “My luggage was already on the plane. I was in my seat, my seat belt was fastened. Before we take off, the stewards came and took me off the plane saying Riyadh, at that moment, has changed the rule of the Covid test.

“Before it was 72 hours prior to flight and this time Riyadh request a Covid test within 72 hours which is available once you land in Riyadh. So it was something that was out of my hands. I’m so devastated, I’m frustrated.”

Rispoli continued: “I want to give all my apologies to Steve Asmussen and his connections of Cowan and Max Player. 

“This is the biggest race in the world. There should be better organisation behind this and probably there wouldn’t be any issue. Today I am paying the consequence of this organisation.”

Max Player and Cowan, who will now be ridden by Joel Rosario, were to be 32-year-old Rispoli’s first rides for Hall of Fame trainer Asmussen. The dual Italian champion jockey successfully relocated to the US 14 months ago following a successful stint in Hong Kong.

Rispoli said: “I am going to watch the races on TV. I will wish all the contenders of the Saudi Cup the best of luck. I will see you back in the business in Santa Anita next Friday.”

The Saudi Cup has been approached for comment.

Saudi Cup betting (Ladbrokes): 11-8 Charlatan, 5-2 Knicks Go, 8 Mishriff, 10 Military Law, 11 Chuwa Wizard, 12 Tacitus, 20 Max Player, 25 Sleepy Eyes Todd, 40 Derevo, Extra Elusive, Global Giant, Great Scot, 50 Bangkok, Simsir.

• Visit the Saudi Cup website

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