Rispoli riding on comeback trail

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Two weeks shy of his 24th birthday, jockey Matt Rispoli is making a comeback – again. The Brick, N.J. native has been on the sidelines since a fall at Gulfstream Park Jan. 20.

“There are different opinions about what happened,” he said. “I’ve a watched the race a dozen times. I didn’t think I clipped heels, but then again I did take a hit to the face.”

According to the official chart, Suzzona, trained by Ben Feliciano Jr., “clipped heels midway through the turn, fell to the course losing her rider but walked off under her own power after the race.”

Not so Rispoli, who broke his right tibia and the orbital bone, cheekbone and nasal cavity on the left side of his face. Surgery on the leg followed a few weeks later, but it wasn’t the first time the young rider had hardware inserted into broken limbs. In 2009, Rispoli was driving from New Jersey to Penn National in the pre-dawn hours when he fell asleep at the wheel and rear-ended a tractor-trailer. The resulting injuries – a compound fracture of his left femur and a nearly-shattered right ankle – required a rod and several screws and kept him out of commission for 14 months.

He returned with two rides at Delaware Park Saturday, finishing second and fourth to end an ordeal of surgery, therapy and a gradual return to riding horses. The day also marked another beginning to a promising riding career.

Rispoli comes from a racing family. His mother, Stephanie Carvalho, is the daughter of jockey Arthur Carvalho; father John is a prominent farrier in New Jersey. John and his brother, Joe, are also licensed trainers.

“I galloped for my uncle around the training track at Monmouth,” Matt said of his introduction to riding Thoroughbreds at the track. “I wouldn’t call it galloping so much as getting run off with. I got dropped in the shedrow my first time at Monmouth.”

At 16, he headed to Franklin “Goree” Smith’s Elloree Training Center in South Carolina. John Rispoli had long been told that Goree Smith had a gift for developing young riders, and both John and his brother Joe knew Smith protégé Chris Antley when he rode at Monmouth Park in the mid-1980s. After two extended stays at Elloree during 2008 – 2009, Matt packed his tack and headed to Maryland to begin his career. He broke his maiden on Casi Cielo at Pimlico May 23, 2009, just his second professional mount.

Rispoli began 2011 riding primarily at Penn National and finished 2012 as that track’s leading jockey with 168 wins. He celebrated his first stakes wins that fall with back-to-back victories on Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park: Classy Coco in the Maryland Million Lassie Stakes, and Motherload Hipster in the Maryland Million Distaff Starter Handicap.

His first – and to date only – graded stakes win came on December 7, 2013 on Valiant Girl (GB) in Calder’s G3 My Charmer Handicap. Rispoli had decided to spend last winter in Florida dividing his time between Calder and Gulfstream. Early on, he generated buzz as the regular rider of Lochte and Valid, now both graded stakes winners. Things were on a definite upswing until the afternoon of Jan. 20.

The next six months were spent rehabbing, with swimming as his preferred exercise. Fair Hill-based since mid August, Rispoli has been getting on horses for Graham Motion every morning in preparation for his return to race riding. Plans are to stay in Maryland this winter.

“I’m very, very grateful to have Graham helping me as much as he is,” he said. “I’m anxious to get back and ready for whatever opportunities arise.”