By Richard Rosenblatt
Not everything has gone smoothly in the final days before the $20 million Saudi Cup, particularly for top U.S.-based jockeys John Velazquez and Umberto Rispoli.
A combination of COVID-19 travel protocols and poor planning by racing officials led to both riders being prevented from making the trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for the world’s richest horse race on Saturday.
Velazquez, a Hall of Fame rider, was scheduled to be aboard Tacitus, while Rispoli had the call on Max Player.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen told drf.com Friday that Mickael Barzalona would ride Max Player; Rispoli also had the mount on Asmussen-trained Cowan in the Saudi Derby and will be replaced by Joel Rosario.
Tacitus will now be ridden by William Buick, while Velazquez’s other ride, the Dirt Sprint aboard New York Central, also goes to Rosario.
Ron Anderson, the agent for Rispoli, Velazquez, and Rosario, told drf.com that the problem for Velazquez was caused by a double-booking by the Saudi Cup’s travel coordinator. That led to the entire flight itinerary being canceled. Trying to reschedule with a plane change in Madrid, Velazquez was told that without a Spanish visa [which he does not have], he could not board a plane to Saudi Arabia.
Velazquez posted on Twitter: “I tested negative 4 times this week to make it to the Saudi cup but never made it anywhere, because flights canceled or wrong alternatives. I am not in Spain. Very disappointed.”
I tested negative 4 times this week to make it to the Saudi cup but never made it anywhere,because flights canceled or wrong alternatives. I am not in Spain. Very disappointed
— John Velazquez (@ljlmvel) February 19, 2021
Rispoli and retired jockey Gary Stevens were taken off their flight in California after being told the recent COVID-19 tests they had taken did not meet Saudi entrance requirements.
“My luggage was on the plane, I was in the seat and my seatbelt was fastened but before we took off the stewards came and took me off the plane,’’ Rispoli posted on Twitter.
— Umberto Rispoli (@umbyrispoli) February 19, 2021
A day earlier [Wednesday], he said his ticket was canceled after a three-hour wait at the airport, and the next day he was ready to fly. By then, he said, there was a slight change in the rules for the COVID-19 test. Instead of a negative test 72 hours before the flight, the new rule said within 72 hours of landing in Riyadh.
“Covid restrictions and testing protocols, coupled with the complications of cancelled flights due to scheduling changes and severe weather conditions, have caused major disruption to the travel plans of some key individuals traveling to the Saudi Cup,’’ the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia in a statement released Friday.
“Mike Smith will replace John Velazquez in the International Jockeys’ Challenge. Velazquez could not attend the Saudi Cup due to a travel issue.
“Umberto Rispoli will not be able to attend the Saudi Cup meeting also due to a travel issue regarding an expired PCR test. Rispoli will be replaced on his three rides tomorrow. We understand and share John and Umberto’s disappointment at not being able to ride at the meeting.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.