Jockeys Run into COVID-19 Travel Complications

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Friday, February 19, 2021

Trainers are making jockey assignment switches at the last minute going into tomorrow's Saudi Cup. Umberto Rispoli and John Velazquez were both stopped from flying into Saudi Arabia due to a mix up in flight arrangements on Wednesday, causing COVID-19 travel restriction issues on Thursday. 

Ron Anderson, the agent for Velazquez and Rispoli, said that Miakel Barzalona would be riding MAX PLAYER and William Buick will be riding TACITUS in the Saudi Cup. Joel Rosario will be on NEW YORK CENTRAL in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint. Rosario will ride COWAN in the Saudi Derby instead of PINK KAMEHAMEHA. 

Rispoli was supposed to be aboard MAX PLAYER for Asumessen in the Saudi Cup and COWAN in the Saudi Derby. However, he was pulled from a Qatar airways flight to Doha as it prepared for take off on Thursday. 

John Velazquez, who was scheduled to ride TACITUS, was supposed to depart from Miami, but was not allowed to fly. 

According to Anderson, the problems began on Wednesday when the two jockeys, as well as Gary Stevens (part of the broadcast team), arrived at Los Angeles for their flight, only to discover that their tickets had been canceled. They were to fly into Doha as a connection to Saudi Arabia. 

"The night before last (Wednesday) Umberto and Joel were at the airport in L.A. The travel team from Saudi made a mistake and double-booked the second leg to Riyadh, so when they got to the airport, their tickets were canceled. Johnny gets to Miami, because he was in Florida, and the same thing. They told us it's called a dupe, and the computer automatically cancels the tickets, as they explained to us, because they didn't cancel the first reservation before making the second," says Anderson. 

The problems only get more complicated. Rispoli and Stevens were both booked on a flight the next day, Thursday, but due to their 72-hour COVID test expiring before they arrived in Saudi Arabia, they were pulled from the plane. Rosario was allowed to stay because he sought an additional COVID test after the first flight was canceled. 

"We had thought, ‘okay, it's alright, we'll just go the next day," said Anderson. "Now Gary, Joel and Umberto are on the plane, sitting in business class, having a glass of champagne, and someone comes and says, ‘okay, you three are getting off the plane. Your 72-hour COVID test expires by the time you get there."

Rosario spent $400 on a rapid test and was lucky to have received an email proving his results, therefore allowed to stay on the flight. 

Gary Stevens claims that the COVID rules were changed just prior to the flight. "It wasn't the airline's choice. All I know is it became our problem in a hurry. Qatar Airlines were very professional and kind about it. They said it was Saudi. We were fine to fly to Qatar, but not on to Saudi. They wouldn't have let us in."


Meanwhile in Miami, Velazquez rebooked his original flight and planned to fly through Spain, but was then told that due to protocols in place in that country, they would not allow him to switch from one terminal to another. The cost would be $10,000 fine and imprisonment. He stayed behind in Miami. 

The Saudi Cup may be the richest race in the world, but there has been some controversy behind it as well. Last year's winner, MAXIMUM SECURITY, still has not received his winnings a year after winning the race. In April 2020, the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia claimed they are still investigating the allegations involving Jason Servis and the drug doping case brought on by the FBI. At that time they stated, "J.C.S.A. is conducting its own investigation in respect of the allegations, and until that investigation is concluded, J.C.S.A. will withhold payment of prize money due to all connections of horses placed in prizewinning positions."

In August 2020, they announced that they would pay second place through tenth place, but would still continue to withhold MAXIMUM SECURITY'S winnings for first place until their investigation was completed. A total of $10 million is being withheld from not only the West's, as owners, but also from Jason Service as the trainer and Mike Smith, the jockey. The J.C.S.A. stated at that time it "cannot reach a fair and reasonable decision on the outcome of the race without relevant evidence that has been gathered by federal authorities in the United States in a sealed indictment."

The Wests, owners of MAXIMUM SECURITY issued a statement August 12th stating that the decision was both unfair and unprecedented. The letter points out that the indictment of Servis was limited to his conduct between February and October 2019 and that MAXIMUM SECURITY never tested positive for a prohibited or illegal substance in his career. While in Saudi Arabia, the colt was tested before leaving the United States, when he arrived in Saudi Arabia and following the race. "If those tests would have been positive, MAXIMUM SECURITY would have been disqualified long ago."

The J.C.S.A. stated in the past that there has been a delay in receiving the post-race testing results due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


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