HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – The son of a prominent Italian jockey, Luca Panici split his spare time between the racetrack and the soccer field across the street during his boyhood in Milan.
“My father was a leading jockey in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He won lots of Grade 1s, all the big races,” said Panici recently between races at Gulfstream Park. “All my uncles were jockeys and trainers. My father trained too.”
Among his friends at the racetrack and on the soccer field was the son of another prominent jockey, Gianfranco Dettori.
Lanfranco ‘Frankie’ Dettori, four years his senior, inspired Panici and his peers with his instant success in Italy at the age of 16 and the subsequent fame and fortune he earned in England and the world.
“My generation was after the generation of Frankie, and everybody tried to copy him. He has so much talent, like Maradona in soccer,” the 41-year-old Panici said. “A jockey like Frankie comes around one time in many years.
“Frankie’s an amazing person. He never changed from when we were kids in Milano to when he became the best jockey in the world,” he added. “He never changed.”
Panici experienced early success as a jockey, as well, notching his first career victory in Milan when he was 16 aboard Blood Cold in September 1990. While Dettori became an avid Anglophile, Panici’s interest would become piqued by racing in the United States.
In the midst of a successful career in Europe, where he rode more than 500 winners, Panici made his first visit to South Florida in January 1997 to gallop horses for trainers Christophe Clemente and Bill Mott during the Italian offseason.
“I galloped for free and they gave me one mount,” said Panici, who returned the following winter to gallop for Gary Sciacca in return for a mount.
Eight years later, he decided to ride full time at Gulfstream Park West (formerly known as Calder Race Course).
“The racing industry in Italy started to go down. They cut the purses and closed some racetracks,” said Panici, who rode Sir Vinsky to victory in Nov. 25, 2005 to register his first U.S. win.
Panici rode 17 winners from 297 mounts in 2006 before returning to Italy for a few years.
“I spent most to the year in Italy in 2007 to 2009. My wife was there. Before I made the decision to come here for good, I wanted to be sure. She had her work there. It was a tough decision,” said Panici, whose wife, Karin, was a fashion model and graphic designer in Italy. “Almost five years ago, we decided to stay here.”
After making the permanent move, Panici dedicated himself to adjusting his riding style to American racing.
“There’s a big difference, especially the dirt races. As soon as the gate opens, it’s a speed race. In Europe, especially on the grass, it’s a more tactical race, a slow pace, longer stretches. In Europe, you need to think more. You can make one or two mistakes and come back. Here, you have to make decisions very fast. But after a period, I learned to enjoy this kind of racing,” Panici said. “I was always a big fan of the American style of racing and American jockeys,”
Over the years, Panici has carved out a niche from himself at Gulfstream Park, where he has ridden 47 winners this year while conducting his business with a high level of dedication.
“It’s pretty hard coming from another country, a different world, different people. You don’t come in like a bug boy and learn the business,” he said. “Professionalism is important. People know when they give me a horse to ride, I’ll give them 100 percent.”
Panici, who notched his first graded-stakes victory aboard Another Romance in the 2012 Azalea (G3), is currently the regular rider for Flutterby, who most recently finished second in the Princess Rooney (G2) after winning the Sea Lily Handicap at Gulfstream in an open gallop.
“She was a very quick filly at the beginning of her career but she was still learning. Now, I think she’s matured and took a big step (forward) in her last two races,” said Panici, who recently ventured to West Virginia with Henry Collazo-trained Bullet Gone Astray to capture the $100,000 Mountaineer Juvenile. “In the morning she is more focused, more professional.”
Any jockey would be happy to ride a filly like Flutterby, who is trained by her 94-year-old breeder/owner, Jerry Bozzo, but Panici looks forward to riding every racing day of the week.
“The horse is an amazing animal. I have the best job in the world. It’s a hard job, but it’s fun and competitive,” he said. “You have a connection with the animal. It’s only you and the horse in the race. It’s an amazing job.”