It was a just a 2-year-old maiden event, squeezed in between the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes at Saratoga and Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, but Sunday's third race at Del Mar felt like a really big deal to Yuichi Fukunaga, a star jockey in Japan who has been on a month-long “oh-fer” since arriving in the United States in late June to compete during a relatively slow period for horse racing in his homeland.
Fukunaga was aboard a homebred Songandaprayer filly owned by Kona Stable and trained by Patrick Biancone making her first career start. She broke quickly from the gate, tracked the early pacesetter for the opening half-mile, then took control at the top of the stretch and was never seriously challenged, winning by a length and a half at odds of almost 8-1.
There was no celebration for Fukunaga, but the smile was genuine when he returned Switch to the Lead back to the winner's circle. After 34 mounts in the United States (17 of them at Del Mar), he was finally off the schneid with his first winner. Fukunaga had two other mounts later in the program that ran his record to 1-for-36 (with six third-place finishes) in the U.S. and 1-for-19 at Del Mar.
That's a pretty significant comedown for a jockey who was named champion rider of 2011 in Japan after earning the highest winning percentage.
But Fukunaga came here with realistic expectations and a goal to learn, not to dominate. And it's been a learning experience for the 35-year-old, who decided to leave Japan during the summer months when there are no Grade 1 races run and try to improve on his riding skills.
Fukunaga is being assisted by Ms. Mikki Tsuge, a horsewoman in her own right from Japan now living in Southern California and who helped get his immigration papers and licensing completed. Tsuge also does some translation for him. Fukunaga hired Brian Beach, a veteran agent who has worked for Hall of Famers Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, and Julie Krone to book his mounts.
Fukunaga also has an English tutor and is learning the language as quickly as possible. He was one of the jockeys the Paulick Report filmed during our recent Del Mar Diaries, and while speaking English, told us, among other things, that he “pondered” becoming a history teacher if he hadn't followed in the footsteps of his father. Yoichi Fukunaga was a champion rider in Japan paralyzed in a racing accident in the late 1970s when Yuichi was a young boy who would soon have dreams of becoming a professional soccer player.
When he realized his soccer skills were not good enough, Fukunaga chose racing over teaching. “I wanted to become famous, and a rich man,” he told us, so he enrolled in the Japan Racing Association jockey school and got his license to ride in 1996.
He has succeeded in becoming rich and famous, at least in his home country, where jockeys are idolized like rock stars. In the United States, despite a determined work ethic, he's had trouble getting mounts from trainers who know he's only here for a short time.
Fukunaga understands the challenge, and said that one of his biggest concerns is managing the expectations of his many fans back in Japan who may not understand why someone as successful and in demand in Japan is struggling in the United States to get mounts and win races.
“He came here knowing it is going to be very difficult for him,” said Tsuge. “In Japan, the fans may think with his skills, he will have the opportunity to ride and win many races in the United States. But he came here with a realistic attitude that he is not well known, and he wants the Japanese fans not to be disappointed and to understand that it is a big challenge. He wants to learn and improve his skills as a rider.”
After Sunday's win, Fukunaga said the filly “should have gotten more respect (at the betting windows), but the price was high because it was me riding her.”
Fukunaga isn't the first Japanese rider to visit the U.S. and ride for a period of time. Yutake Take, the most successful rider in Japanese racing history, tried California racing some years ago with limited success. Unlike Take, who is more of a patient, sit-still rider with a style that didn't fit California's “go-go” racing, Fukunaga has tried to show American trainers he can break his horses from the gate quickly and put them in the race immediately.
That's what he did aboard Switch to the Lead, who he'd worked three times for Biancone before her debut, including a quick :34 3/5 gate drill going three furlongs at Del Mar.
“From his first race he was trying to figure how he could get horses out of the gate fast,” said Tsuge. “In Japan, he is known as a good gate jockey. It's something he takes pride in. It is different here, though, because of the ponies that are used in the post parade (they are not used in Japan) and because there is an assistant starter in each stall of the starting gate. He has experimented by shortening the reins to get a better jump from the gate.”
“I remember when Yuichi won the American Oaks at Hollywood Park with Cesario (in 2005),” Beach said. “I was very impressed with him then, and since being asked to be his agent I've studied films of his riding in Japan, and believe he has an ‘American-style.' But he's also very cool under pressure. I've seen him ride in many big races, in large fields with a lot of traffic, and he doesn't panic. He has very good hands, and really seems to communicate well with his horses. He uses his hands a lot and seems to use the whip as a last resort.”
“He has a very clear vision of what he wants to accomplish,” said Tsuge. “He wants to test his skills, understanding there is still a lot of room for improvement.”
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