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Fresu riding with winning body language

Author: Duane Fonseca


It is often said that when an Italian talks, it is his hands and fingers that do the talking. It perhaps explains why the Italian jockey Antonio Fresu thrived in his first full season in the UAE last term and is presently on course for another successful campaign. Fresu has clearly carried that culture defining trait beyond the realm of regular social interaction and into his work life. It has been career defining. It served him well during his days as an apprentice, then professional, rider in Italy and is now defining his place among the jockeys plying their trade within the Emirates’ shores.

“It’s something different, but it is very Italian,” said Fresu, animatedly and, of course, gesturing theatrically to convey his point. Like Palio (a historic horse race held in the city of Siena that involves communities with traditional rivalries dating back centuries)? I ask. “People who haven’t seen Palio will not understand what it is and how significant it is to Italian culture. They might just think it is something crazy. But there is a deeper meaning to it. “It is about involving communities and themes that are all against each other and these date back many centuries. There is a movie on Palio and I suggest everyone watches it to understand it better.”

He may not have an eyecatching celebratory gesture to call his own like compatriot Frankie Dettori, who springs out of the saddle every time he wins a major prize, but there is something fascinating about Fresu. Whether it is that intensive, introspective, mumbling, head nodding trudge back to the jockeys’ room as he picks up the pieces and cross examines a defeat, or his infectious smile as he trots back gallantly astride his mount towards the winner’s circle, Fresu is quite the sight.

The 26yo, born and raised on the Italian island of Sardinia, says he uses every race result as a reference point for improvement. “That’s the way life is no?” he asks. “I like to think that I must improve with every race and that my results must keep improving year after year. You cannot be the same person.” That is very true for Fresu, who seems on course to outdo himself in what is his second full UAE season. He finished fourth last term behind Pat Dobbs after eventual champion, Richard Mullen, and runner-up, Tadhg O’Shea turned the run for the jockeys’ title into a two man match race.

Fresu rode 24 winners from 252 rides in 2016/17, but just a month into the 2017/18 campaign and he is already one of its early talking points as he finds himself currently level in third with O’Shea in terms of winners: 8 from 60 runs. He admits to feeling more settled and confident this term. “When you have quiet moments, you have doubts that maybe you’re not riding well, but when you start winning, your confidence is back and you ride better and then things start Fitzgerald to get better and your mood is better and the mood reflects on the horse as well,” he said. “So far it has been very good.

Last year was nice and I couldn’t have asked for a better start. This year too the racing has been good with a good amount of winners already and it’s only November, so hopefully there will be better luck ahead. “There is still a long way to go. Four more months of racing are still left and I will be very happy if things go well. It has been fun riding here and I have had a good amount of experience now. Hopefully, it can only get better with more people confident in my abilities as a jockey and me getting better horses to ride.” Fresu comes from a racing background.

His father Stefano and uncle were jockeys and his grandad and great grandfather were also involved in the sport as trainers. Despite an affinity for the sport, his family wanted him to keep away even though he was literally cut out for life in the saddle. “All my family were in racing: my dad, my uncle and my grandad, but they didn’t want me to be a jockey. How could I not become one?” asked Fresu, who learned his trade at the Scuola Allievi Fantini di Pisa. “It was something that I had always wanted to do because I grew up beside horses. I was always keen on being a jockey.

I am a very ambitious man and I can be very stubborn. If I want something I go get it, so I stopped going to school when I was 18 and joined a riding school instead. “I knew it was the right thing to do and then I won the apprentice championship and finished second in the jockeys’ championship in my second season in Italy. So it was a great start to my career.” He moved to England later, but didn’t have much luck there and would travel back to Italy to ride on weekends for the trainer Stefano Botti. “Things moved pretty slowly in England since I didn’t have any claim and nobody knew me; it was a tough game trying to get rides, so I would ride Sundays for Stefano in Italy, which kept me going,” said Fresu, who, to date, has 22 winners from 259 rides in England.

It was during his time in Italy that Fresu received a call to team up with Green Stables’ boss Erwan Charpy. “Alessandro who is assistant trainer to Ahmad bin Harmash asked if I was interested in coming here because Erwan was looking out for a rider, so I sent my CV across and we discussed things and it worked out,” said Fresu, who also rides for Desert I boss Ernst Oertel. “Erwan is a really good trainer and he is doing well. We’ve started a little slowly this year, but I’m really confident that we will get better as the season progresses. In my first season I didn’t have an agent and I did everything myself and finished fourth, but now things have changed and I have good support from both Erwan and Ernst and all is going well, so hopefully it can be better.”

Fresu is yet to taste top flight success and rates his Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge R2 and Group 3 UAE Oaks wins last season as his biggest career successes so far. He won the former with the Charpy-schooled Furia Cruzada, while his victory in the Oaks came aboard the Bin Harmash-handled Nomorerichblondes. “My target has always been to win Group races and last season I won two and had the chance to ride my favourite filly Furia Cruzada in the Dubai World Cup. It was my first season and I had always dreamed of being there so it was really, really brilliant,” said Fresu.

“Every trainer has to say what he wants and you try to do that, but sometimes when the stalls open everything changes and as a rider you have to think what is good for your horse in the race. So you have to think quickly about it and act quickly on it.” Quick action is something that is second nature to Fresu, who defied his family to become a jockey and is only too happy to be riding. “It’s just what I love to do. It’s special being near horses. I’ve always been near them. I used to watch my father ride and I loved the competition and everything about the job.”

While Fresu dreams of riding in the biggest and most historic races around the world, there is one he definitely won’t mind giving a miss: the Palio di Siena. “That is just too crazy for me. I would like to ride at that track once in my life, but definitely not in competition, it’s just too crazy.” Perhaps that’s because the mere thought of competing there makes his otherwise animated Italian hands freeze.

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07 Aug 2018
Issue Number: Issue 647
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Dubai playing a key role in British racing, says Jockey Club boss
Busybody Tadhg looks to scale mountains after climbing Hills
Nass’ trial and error style seems to be working wonders for him
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