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Yuga Kawada stands on the cusp of a first championship, a feat that continues his family’s long racing legacy and is important to the profile of Japanese jockeys on the world stage.
Yuga Kawada is guided into a room a short way along a corridor located beneath Tokyo racecourse’s massive grandstand. The windowless space chosen by Japan Racing Association (JRA) staff is small, a little cramped in its arrangement of functional desks and chairs.
He takes a seat, his back to the wall, and waits quietly for the first question. He is polite in a cool, aloof way: his body language is that of a man conscious of conveying respect, yet with a firm defensive front that betrays a desire to be elsewhere. He has just placed fifth in the G1 Japan Cup on the well-fancied Danon Beluga; it was a rough race, he had to snatch up late and lost ground, and the impression is that he is not happy about it.
His prior post-race statement to local journalists must go down as one of the briefest interviews in sports history: into the media scrum and out again within a handful of seconds.
“Kawada does not like to speak with the media,” is the word from Japanese journalists. And this, according to those who know him, is because he is a private person who feels that the press does not always represent his words or thoughts accurately.
But in this small room, with JRA staff on hand, he is ok with a brief ‘one-on-one’ interview with Asian Racing Report.
“I want to finish at the top,” he says simply, via the JRA interpreter, when asked about the motivations that are driving him to achieve his first JRA champion jockey title this year, at age 37.
Yuga Kawada is renowned for his laser focus. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Yuga Kawada aboard Arc contender Harp Star at Longchamp. (Photo by Koji Hirano/Getty Images)
Kawada has long been seen as a champion designate, almost that the title is somehow his destiny. He has finished second in the standings on four occasions, firstly in 2013 when Yuichi Fukunaga bested him by 13; and in each of the past three years behind the five-time champion, the Frenchman, Christophe Lemaire. This time, the title is heading his way.
“Obviously, I couldn’t get that result yet, but this year I want to achieve that top position. Since Christophe got a full-time licence in Japan, he has been the champion the last few years, but for me, as a local Japanese jockey, I am really keen to win it back for the Japanese, and that’s why I work so hard.”
Mitsumasa Nakauchida has known Kawada since ‘he was ten or 11 years old’ and considers him to be ‘a close friend, like a brother’. The 2021 JRA leading trainer is a firm ally when it comes to the business of winning races and has provided Kawada with three of his 23 career Group 1 wins, most recently the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies on the exciting two-year-old Liberty Island.
“He’s a top-class rider,” Nakauchida says when contacted via phone. “He’s just been unlucky with Christophe Lemaire coming to Japan and getting the best rides, but he worked hard the last few years to climb up to become the top rider.
“I think his whole life is so dedicated to racing. He thinks about races all the time and his whole lifestyle is just focused towards the weekend’s racing, that’s what he has done all of his life. I think everyone understands why he is in this position at the moment.”
Yuga Kawada hails from a long line of jockeys. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Two-year-old filly Liberty Island destroys her Hanshin opposition. (Photo by JRA)
Kawada is a fourth-generation jockey. He was born in Tosu City, Saga prefecture in October 1985 and grew up around the local NAR track at Saga, his father being the rider turned trainer Takayoshi Kawada. His grandfather Toshimi Kawada also rode and trained, and before that, so too did his great-grandfather Wakaya Kawada.
He says he first sat on a horse when he was ‘two or three’ then pauses and revises it to ‘maybe one or two years old’.
“When I was eight years old my father became a trainer and opened his own stable, so since then I stayed around my own stable, but before that I was around my grandfather’s stable,” he says, his eyes alive at mention of his family and his deep heritage in Japanese racing.
“Wakaya is my family’s god,” he adds, and laughs, and the ice façade thaws a little in the comment’s dry mirth.
“When he was a jockey, it was about 100 years ago so it was a very early time for horse racing in Japan. My family has a story that he won 11 races from 11 rides at one race meeting.”
It is put to Kawada that his great-grandfather achieved a remarkable feat. He smiles and responds in a flash, “It could be a lie.” There is laughter again.
Kawada’s turn to humour softens the atmosphere’s stiffness and aligns more with the image he portrays at times on his Instagram account: road trips on his Harley Davidson, camping in serene countryside, fishing and cooking over open coals beneath open skies.
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“The camping is quite new, through Covid it gave me some downtime. It keeps me fresh for my work,” he says.
And the Harley?
“Yeah, I like Harley,” he says, breaking into English momentarily.
But cruising the highways in chill-out mode was not what inspired him initially to purchase one of the two-wheeled American icons of the open road. He smiles again, a sideways smile, almost self-conscious.
“There’s a Japanese TV show and a cool actor rode a Harley Davidson,” he admits, revealing his admiration for a Police drama called Abunai Deka, which translates to Dangerous Detectives, and the lead character played by actor Hiroshi Tachi.
“He rides the Harley Davidson,” he says, in English again, “he uses the shotgun,” he adds, mimicking the action of a pump-action reload and discharge. There is an unexpected sense of Kawada poking fun at himself.
But the seriousness returns when talk turns back to his career and where he fits in the overall scheme of Japan’s top riders. After his formative learning around the NAR system, he started out as a JRA jockey in 2004, under the tutelage of trainer Takayuki Yasuda, who conditioned the great Lord Kanaloa.
He has notched 100 wins or more in seven of the last 12 seasons and in each of the last four, with his highest tally being 167 when second to Lemaire’s 204 in 2020; his career tally stands at 1,823 and counting.
His major wins include all five Japanese classics: the Satsuki Sho on Captain Thule, the Oka Sho on Harp Star and Stars On Earth, the Tokyo Yushun on Makahiki, the Yushun Himba on Gentildonna and the Kikuka Sho on Big Week. He has also won the Takarazuka Kinen on Lovely Day, three Yasuda Kinens, including one aboard Maurice, the Sprinters Stakes on Fine Needle, and the Takamatsunomiya Kinen on Fine Needle and Danon Smash.
Yuga Kawada and Maurice win the 2015 Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Yuga Kawada and Fine Needle (outside) win the Sprinters' Stakes at Nakayama. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
But it is telling to note that after Maurice’s Yasuda success the ride went to Ryan Moore, Joao Moreira and Tommy Berry; the Lovely Day ride was lost to Mirco Demuro, Moreira, Christophe Lemaire and Hugh Bowman; Lemaire took over when Makahiki went to France; and the two occasions Danon Smash went overseas, including his win in the Hong Kong Sprint, Kawada lost out to Moore and Moreira.
Kawada is firm in pressing through the interpreter that he does not consider this to be a ‘frustration’ but rather, he says: “This is why winning the Breeders’ Cup was so important because I could show that not only the Japanese horses but also the Japanese jockeys are good at that world level.
“I’m not saying it’s been frustrating, not at all, but in the current position in Japan, there’s this thing I needed to do and I did that at the Breeders’ Cup.”
That being so, he considers his Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf success on Loves Only You to be his most important career win. At Del Mar in November 2021, the Yoshito Yahagi-trained mare made history as the first Japanese-trained winner at the Breeders’ Cup and Kawada was the Japanese jockey holding the reins.
And he had taken those reins from non-Japanese jockeys: Demuro had ridden Loves Only You as a three-year-old but Kawada took over for a first-up four-year-old win, only to lose the ride to Oisin Murphy in Dubai and Vincent Ho in Hong Kong; but the following year, connections stuck with Kawada right through, and he even added a G1 Hong Kong Cup triumph to the Del Mar win.
Yuga Kawada embraces Loves Only You after the pair made history at Del Mar. (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)
Kawada drives Loves Only You home in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
“He was disappointed about losing those rides,” says Yahagi when approached at Sha Tin in early December. “Some owners like Northern Farm like foreign jockeys, but I think he’s the most responsible jockey in Japan. He can ride all kinds of horses and I know he has been improving, he has studied being a jockey and has improved through very tough work, I have seen him doing that.”
Nakauchida says that it is his observation that the trainers in Japan have faith in Kawada and understand his abilities to ride the best horses on the big days.
“But what he has to do now is try to understand owners,” he says. “That they need to see that they have good jockeys in Japan to go overseas. He has started to prove this in the last few years, I think.
“It is very important because we race every weekend in Japan and we have the big fans of racing, so I’m sure that makes a huge difference to Japanese racing fans that we have Japanese jockeys that can go overseas to compete in top level races around the world.”
As Kawada stands on the cusp of achieving the title of champion jockey, the champion trainers Yahagi and Nakauchida are without hesitation in declaring their judgement of the rider’s position within Japan’s jockey ranks.
“He’s the best in Japan,” says Yahagi.
Damian Lane and Yoshito Yahagi after winning the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley. (Photo: John Donegan/Racing Photos via Getty Images)
“He is the best,” declares Nakauchida. “Very focused and meticulous: he tries to understand the horse, every minute or every second he is riding. He really adjusts to each horse and he has the skill to do that, and he is strong so he can ride those strong horses. In other ways, he is so sensitive when riding a nervous or sensitive filly, so he can adjust to any horse he rides.”
The best of all riders currently, Nakauchida clarifies, including Lemaire – bearing in mind that the great Yutaka Take is 53 now and beyond his prime. Yet, for some, there will be a question mark hanging over Kawada’s title: Lemaire took an extended mid-season break to be with family in France and that time doubtless affected his final tally.
But, what counts at this point is that on the eve of the Arima Kinen, with three JRA race days remaining, Kawada holds a seemingly unassailable 11-win lead over Tosaki, with Lemaire 35 wins behind in fifth.
‘King’ Kawada’s crowning as champion may well be the fulfilment of destiny; it is certainly a pinnacle moment in his family’s long heritage in Japanese racing; but it also sets up the prospect of an enthralling head-to-head in 2023, should Lemaire determine to try and wrest the crown back.
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