Meet one of the newest jockeys on the Southern California circuit, Antonio Fresu, who came here in late April from riding in Dubai and Italy and immediately has made a name for himself at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos.
The 31-year-old Italian native was sixth in the Del Mar jockey standings with seven victories heading into Thursday’s card and hopes to score his first graded-stakes victory sometime during the 31-day summer meet. He won 14 races during Santa Anita’s Hollywood Meet (16%) and five at Los Alamitos (20%).
Fresu credits his agent, Tom Knust, for much of his early success.
“He’s doing a great job because he managed to put me on some nice horses straight away since I moved,” Fresu told the Southern California News Group during a phone interview Thursday. “It’s been good. I think many people appreciate him because he’s a good person, too, and that’s really important in the business.”
It’s also important to win races when you get the opportunities, and Fresu has done his share of winning since arriving in the U.S. He credits his seven years of riding in Dubai and his experiences of racing on the turf in Italy and England for his success.
“Europe is a totally different style,” he said. “Dubai not that much. Dubai is dirt so you ride on the dirt over there already. It’s basically almost the same. When you come here, you have the background of Dubai so you are a step forward. You’re not a completely European jockey because you’ve been riding on the dirt for several years.
“The dirt (Dubai) is almost the same as it is here. Fast pace. All those things. Then when it comes to the grass, you have your background in Europe, which is really good. It’s good for me that I have been experiencing both of them before I moved here.”
Trainer Doug O’Neill and Fresu’s Dubai agent, Michael Adolphson, are the major reasons why he’s here riding. They encouraged him to come to the U.S., and when Fresu knew he’d have the opportunity to ride for one of the most successful trainers in the country and also be represented by a veteran agent, the decision was easy.
“It helped when Doug started riding us because we had a stable he could ride for,” Knust said. “But once he started working horses for people and started talking to trainers and stuff, they could tell that he’s a very classy rider and he can ride, and then it got a lot easier for me.”
Knust also said his client has a clock in his head.
“He’s got a good judge of pace and where the horse should be at,” he said. “I think that’s a strong suit, too. In the mornings when he works horses, he knows exactly how fast he’s going. That’s just something you can’t teach somebody. You have it or you don’t have it.”
Growing up in Italy, Fresu went to riding school at 18 and rode his first race just two months shy of his 20th birthday. He rode in Italy for a couple of years, moved to England and then to Dubai. He was riding winters in Dubai and summers in Italy before he moved here.
His idol? None other than fellow Italian Frankie Dettori.
“He’s been very kind to me,” Fresu said. “He actually helped a lot when I came over because he’s been here before. I’ve known him for a long time and, other than being probably the best jockey, he’s also a very good person. It’s always nice to be around him when he’s over and I’m a little bit sad that (he’s retiring), but he’s been my idol many, many years.”
Fresu’s biggest victory to date came aboard Zenden for trainer Carlos David in the 2021 Grade I Dubai Golden Shaheen. He’d been itching to come to the U.S. for a number of years, but the fact he had no contacts in the U.S. and with COVID striking, his move was delayed until this year.
“It’s hard to move when you have nothing,” he said. “Now I took my chance because Michael and Doug O’Neill said I should move here. I say, ‘OK, now we can talk.’ The support from Doug, plus a good agent, I say, ‘OK, now I can move. I can do it.’”
He hopes the move is permanent, but it’s been tough. His wife, Veronika, is still living in Duabi and he gets lonely sometimes. But concentrating on his career and making new friends in the jocks’ room has made life a bit easier.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt when you’re riding for successful trainers like O’Neill, Philip D’Amato, Peter Miller, Mark Glatt and Carla Gaines.
“You need to meet new people,” Fresu said. “The only one I knew from before was (fellow Italian) Umberto Rispoli. All the rest I needed to meet them and to know them once you’re here. To be honest, they are all nice guys. I felt comfortable straight away since the beginning. It’s nice to meet people like this. It makes you feel better. At the moment, I am here and I am enjoying it here. We’ll see what the future holds.”
Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73