07/19/2012 12:06PM

Del Mar: Japanese champion Fukunaga tests the waters

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Yuichi Fukunaga rides Timberlite to a fifth-place finish in a maiden race July 4 at Betfair Hollywood Park. Fukunaga will ride full time at Del Mar this summer during a lull in the Japanese season.

The story of Japanese jockey Yuichi Fukunaga is a simple one – if by simple the reader’s frame of reference is a melodramatic Russian classic or John Irving novel in full psychological bloom. The plot twists like this:

You are the son of a sports legend whose career is cut tragically short by a crippling accident. As a result, you come of age knowing only a father who is disabled and can barely communicate, totally disconnected from the accomplishments that made him a national hero.

Your mother, understandably embittered by the loss of the husband she knew, is fearful her son might try to follow in his father’s footsteps and therefore steers him away from what might have been his natural-born destiny.

This works for a while, and other interests occupy your time, but as a teen you come under the benign influence of a friend and neighbor who is on his way to becoming even more famous than your father in the same dangerous profession.

Against your mother’s wishes, you pick up your father’s torch and, with the nation watching your every move, you try to fill his shoes. This is, of course, impossible, so you numb your frustration with alcohol and parties and achieve just enough to keep reminding people that you are not and never will be your father.

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Then, after turning 30, you begin to find your own voice. You discover that you have your own story to write, your own life to live. At 33, you have your best year as a professional and then an even better year after that, climaxed two days after your 35th birthday, when you become a champion – just like your father, but on your terms.

Heavy stuff, yes, but leavened by the fact that Yuichi Fukunaga is far more concerned these days with his Great American Experiment, a summertime journey of total immersion into U.S. racing with the dream of someday planting a flag here for at least a season. Fair warning then to fans at Del Mar, where Fukunaga and his local agent Brian Beach will make their headquarters: the slight, friendly Japanese fellow getting sand between his toes down there by the 17th Street tower is a bona fide superstar in his native land, just hoping to get a chance to display his wares on this side of the Pacific pond.

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Fukunaga had a mount in the $350,000 American Oaks at Betfair Hollywood Park last weekend, finishing sixth aboard the 17-1 shot Left a Message for trainer Tom Proctor and owner Leonard Lavin. It was worth a shot, since Fukunaga’s only other trip to the United States came in July 2005, when he rode the Japanese filly Cesario to a breathtaking victory in the American Oaks. Proctor, for his part, was inclined to give Fukunaga the ride for more practical reasons.

“He rode a couple for me at Churchill Downs,” Proctor said, “one of ’em on a first-time starter. The colt kind of hopped out of the gate, then he was going a little goofy. So the jock just kind of took him over and got dirt in his face, then wheeled him out and came running to get third. I thought, ‘Man, I got guys who speak English couldn’t have given him a better race.’ ”

Fukunaga speaks some English and understands a whole lot more, which was apparent from a conversation at Hollywood Park not long ago in the company Mikki Tsuge, his guide and translator. Fukunaga was asked what he hopes to accomplish in his swing through America’s racing capitals before he resumes what has been another banner campaign back home.

“It has been a vision of mine to ride in the United States,” Fukunaga said, through Tsuge. “I’ve thought about it for a long time. But I could not make any plans to do so until I tested the water. My goal is to ride as many horses as I can. If in the two months I am here I can earn the trust of trainers and owners to ride for them, then I definitely will want to come back.”

Fukunaga is the son of Yoichi Fukunaga, the nine-time Japanese riding champion who dominated the jockey ranks throughout the 1970s. His name, though, is not well known outside Japan, because Japanese racing was at the time a hermetically sealed world allowing practically no intrusion from abroad, other than bloodstock for breeding. It was not until the debut of the Japan Cup, in 1982, that horsemen in other nations began paying attention to the depth and breadth of the Japanese Thoroughbred sport.

By then, Yoichi Fukunaga was a memory. Yuichi was a 2-year-old toddler at home in the Shiba district of Tokyo when his father was thrown from a racehorse named Marry Joy in a two-horse pile-up at Hanshin Race Course on March 4, 1979. The news of Fukunaga’s accident held the Japanese sporting world in thrall, and after spending two weeks listed in critical condition, the jockey emerged from the death watch as a quadriplegic with neurological damage. He was 29.

The elder Fukunaga’s struggles to regain a semblance of quality to his life are chronicled in the “manga” – a time-honored style of publication that tells its story in illustrated panels – entitled “Geniuses Without Glory.” Against all odds, for someone injured so severely, Yoichi Fukunaga has survived to witness his son become a champion.

“He watches my races on TV,” Fukunaga said quietly. “He understands.”

Fukunaga is hardly the first national star to take his show on the road. There is a rich history to the ebb and flow of top jockey talent around the globe.

Tod Sloan, the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” of George M. Cohan’s popular musical, went from being America’s leading rider to take England by storm at the turn of the 20th century. Steve Cauthen followed suit decades later, while Cash Asmussen turned a similar trick in France.

The abilities of Hong Kong champion Tony Cruz translated successfully to Europe in the late 1980s. Leading lights Olivier Peslier, Christophe Soumillon, and Mirco Dimauro have been among the Europeans taking advantage of three-month riding contracts in Japan as did America’s Kent Desormeaux, while Hall of Famer Gary Stevens made his mark in Hong Kong, England, and France.

In showcasing his talents abroad, Fukunaga is following in the footsteps of Japanese champions Yukio Okabe, Masayoshi Ebina, and Yutaka Take. It was Take, the all-time leading Japanese jockey and a family friend, who took the teenage Fukunaga under his wing, deeply attuned to their common bond. Take’s father, Kunihiko Take, was a legendary rider in his own right whose nickname translated to “Magician on Turf.” Yoichi Fukunaga was reverently referred to as “The Genius.”

“He was our neighbor,” Fukunaga said of Take, seven years Yuichi’s senior. “We talked a lot. But I had no interest in being a jockey. My mother discouraged me as well. I played soccer in school. After a time, I decided I wanted to try. I applied to the jockey school myself. My mother was not pleased, but she is supportive of me now.”

Even as a young rider, Fukunaga was painfully self-conscious about the doors his name would open.

“I had a big advantage at the start line when I began my career,” he told a Japanese magazine earlier this year. “When the starting gun went off, I was way ahead of the jockeys that debuted the same year. Because I was in the spotlight, I thought that I would be weeded out fairly fast. I feared that once I’m judged as an incompetent rider or that I have no talent, I would be instantly booted out.”

It did not happen that way. Fukunaga won with his very first mount in 1996, ending that season as “Rookie of the Year,” and went on to be among the hot young stars of the game. During 2005, when he won the Japanese Oaks with Cesario and followed with their historic American Oaks triumph, he also won the Oko Sho – Japan’s version of the 1000 Guineas – and three other races rated Group 1.

Fukunaga also was on a fast track to an alcohol addiction, courtesy of his self-doubts.

“Just about two years ago, I stopped going out to get drunk,” Fukunaga told the magazine. “It is so rewarding when you can do what you weren’t able to do before. The joy of this is deeper than winning.”

The winning has not stopped. After taking the 2011 national championship, Fukunaga tore through the first months of the 2012 season with abandon. He was on top of the standings when he left in June and was still tied for the lead as of July 8.

Just before leaving for the United States, Fukunaga won the Yasuda Kinen, Japan’s most prestigious race at a mile, aboard the 6-year-old Strong Return for owner Teruya Yoshida. After the wire, Fukunaga let loose with an uncharacteristic fist pump and a grateful slap to the neck of his horse. He had a right. With it’s purse of $1.3 million, it was the biggest victory of his career and the perfect sendoff for his American adventure (he also won a half-million dollar race the same day).

“When I win a big race, I understand how some jockeys might want to show how happy they are, but I try to put a brake on my emotions,” Fukunaga said. “I try to be very objective and think about what just happened. I appreciate how much the horse has given to accomplish the job. Also, if you get emotional, your body can move out of balance, and that could hurt the horse.”

It is clear Fukunaga has given serious thought to the fine points of his craft as well as to his own evolution as a jockey.

“It is almost painful to look back to see how unskillful my rides were,” Fukunaga said in the recent article. “I was also aware that being the son of a prominent jockey, there was an unusual amount of attention focused towards me. I felt that the only way to fulfill such attention and expectation and to prove myself worthy was to win races. That was all I could think of. I had no room in my mind to think about polishing my riding technique. It was after I reached the age of 30 that I finally was comfortable enough to analyze my race and value more of how I rode instead of just the results.”

If nothing else, Fukunaga has been enjoying his relative anonymity on the U.S. racing scene.

“In Japan, there are many distractions,” he said. “I am the vice president of the jockeys association, so there are many meetings. Here, there are the morning workouts, and then if I am not riding, I spend the afternoon in the stands, watching the races. It is a pleasure to think of only riding.”

It will be his riding on which Fukunaga is judged during his American tryout – not on his Japanese record and certainly not on his lineage. At the same time, he concedes he still has mountains to climb back home, where at the very least he wants to maintain his hold on the national title and add wins in the Japanese Derby and the Japan Cup to his résumé. Then, at some point, will the son of a sports legend be anointed with a nickname of his own? Fukunaga was quick to answer – in English.

“Not ‘Genius,’ ” he said and laughed.