Jockey Panici plans to 'enjoy' first Triple Crown start

Jockey Panici plans to 'enjoy' first Triple Crown start
Photo: Courtesy Gulfstream Park

Luca Panici has maintained a somewhat low profile while establishing himself with Gulfstream Park horsemen as a solid, steady and smart jockey since leaving Italy for a new adventure in the United States.

The 46-year-old Milan native, however, will take Thoroughbred racing’s center stage Saturday at Belmont Park, where he will compete in his first Triple Crown race while riding Sole Volante in the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes (G1).

“He’s a tremendous horse. We have a lot of confidence. He’s one of the best 3-year-olds in the USA,” Panici said. “It’s very exciting. I’m going there to enjoy it.”

The son of a jockey, Panici grew up playing soccer with Frankie Dettori across the street from the local racetrack. Dettori, four years his senior, inspired Panici with his immediate success as a jockey at the age of 16, as well as the subsequent fame and fortune he earned in England and across the world.

Panici went on to enjoy success while riding more than 500 winners in Italy, but racing in the U.S. first caught his attention in 1996, when he spent a winter in South Florida galloping for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for free in exchange for one mount (fifth-place finisher Yokama in a Feb. 19, 1996, allowance at Gulfstream).

Panici, who returned to South Florida the following winter to gallop for trainer Gary Sciacca, rode sporadically at Calder Race Course and Gulfstream for the next several years before making a permanent move to the U.S. in 2009. He has won 677 races in the U.S., none more important than Sole Volante’s triumph in the Feb. 8 Sam F. Davis (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs. The late-closing, 2 1/2-length victory was the son of Karakontie’s first on dirt and made him a 2020 Triple Crown player.

Panici has been involved in Sole Volante’s development from the start, breezing him for trainer Patrick Biancone prior to riding him to victory in his debut over Gulfstream Park West’s turf course last October.

“I used to work him before he ran. I worked him a couple of times on the grass and he was amazing,” Panici said. “Mr. Biancone, from the first day, was sure he would handle both grass and dirt. When we worked him on the dirt, he showed the same ability. We figured we had a really good horse.”

Because of injury, Panici had to sit out Sole Volante’s victory in the Nov. 30 Pulpit Stakes, in which future Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner King Guillermo finished third, but he was back aboard for a third-place finish in the Jan. 4 Mucho Macho Man in his first start on dirt.

After breaking through with a victory in the Sam F. Davis, Sole Volante staged an impressive rally from 11th to finish second behind King Guillermo in the Tampa Bay Derby, before the coronavirus pandemic halted racing at most racetracks and prompted the postponement of the Kentucky Derby (G1) to Sept. 5 and the Preakness Stakes to Oct. 4, making Saturday’s Belmont the first leg of the 2020 Triple Crown.

Sole Volante continued to train at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, before returning to action in a stakes-quality optional claiming allowance at Gulfstream June 10. Rating kindly for Panici, Sole Volante trailed his five rivals as stablemate Ete Indien set a contested pace, made a wide sweep into the stretch and got up to win by three-quarters of a length under a hand ride.

“There was a lot of pace which is very good for him. Even at Tampa, when we won the Sam Davis, there was a lot of pace where he could relax behind. Last time, it was the same way. I got lucky there was only a six-horse field, so I didn’t have any kind of trouble. He has a very, very professional mind. It was a nice finish, beating the horse that ran second in the [Curlin] Florida Derby,” said Panici, referring to Shivaree, who pressed Ete Indien before weakening late.

Panici’s successful association with Biancone hasn’t been limited to Sole Volante’s exploits. The veteran jockey has become a trusted member of the Biancone team, breezing and regularly riding Ete Indien, whom he rode to an allowance win and a second-place finish behind subsequent Florida Derby (G1) winner Tiz the Law in the Feb. 1 Holy Bull (G3) during the Championship Meet, and Kelsey’s Cross, whom he guided to an eye-catching triumph in the $100,000 Ginger Punch Stakes June 6.

“Mr. Biancone has won two or three Arc de Triomphes. Winning two or three Arc de Triomphes is like winning two or three Kentucky Derbies, here. It’s the most difficult race in Europe,” Panici said. “When you ride for the best, it’s pretty easy. I’m confident in him and he’s confident in me. We’re doing pretty good together.”

Sole Volante has been rated second in the Belmont Stakes morning line at 9-2 behind Tiz the Law, the 6-5 favorite in a field of 10 3-year-olds.

2020 Belmont Stakes (G1)

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