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Joe Fujii suffered terrible injuries in a racefall in April and has seen his young family once since, but has retained his goal-setting mindset in the face of adversity.
Noel Mayfield-Smith remembers with absolute clarity what struck him most about Kanichiro ‘Joe’ Fujii when the second-year apprentice first arrived at his Sydney stables. The impeccable dress sense and matching manners left an indelible impression, for sure, but it was Fujii’s firm focus on his overriding goal that really hit home.
“He knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go,” Mayfield-Smith says.
“I asked him what he wanted: he said he wanted to win the Sydney apprentice title and return to Japan and become a jockey. He is a goal setter and is always determined to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.”
That was 2003. After failing the gruelling JRA entrance exam four times over the space of eight years, Joe Fujii finally achieved his goal in 2019.
Now he is faced with a greater, almost unfathomable challenge. There is no easy way to put it: Joe Fujii cannot walk.
Fujii suffered a race fall at Fukushima on April 16, dislocating his T4 vertebrae and damaging his spinal cord. He underwent surgery the night of the accident and had plates attached to his vertebrae to stabilise his spine. He is paralysed from the chest down. True to Fujii’s nature, new goals have been set.
“My first goal is to walk again,” he says. “Get on my feet and walk again.”
Fujii is speaking via phone from a rehabilitation centre in Japan. Because of COVID restrictions, he has only seen his wife Saori, and three children – aged 10, seven and two – for a total of 30 minutes in-person since the accident, and that was on the day after his surgery.
He still can’t bring himself to watch a replay of the fall but detailed memories of immediately before and after the impact are seared onto his mind.
“Fifty metres before the winning post the horse in front of me broke its leg,” he recalls.
“When it happened I could see it, but he was so close to my horse that I had no choice, I couldn’t avoid it. I can remember until then. The next thing I can remember is being on my way to the hospital and in a lot of pain, and the nurse right beside me: she was holding my hands so tightly, and kept saying to me ‘you will be alright, you will be alright’.”
Over the previous two decades – riding with distinction in Australia, Singapore, Korea and Malaysia – Fujii had compiled a list of injuries that are the lot of the journeyman jockey: fractured collar bone, twice; broken ribs and shattered jaw; dislocated shoulder and torn ligaments. So, despite the reassurances of the nurse in the ambulance, Fujii knew better.
“I was in a lot of pain but I could feel something was different,” he says. “I have had so many injuries and falls but, compared to those, I could sense straight away that this wasn’t right. I couldn’t move my lower body.”
I have had so many injuries and falls but, compared to those, I could sense straight away that this wasn’t right. I couldn’t move my lower body.
Fujii’s diagnosis makes for more difficult reading. Spinal injuries are classified under the ASIA Impairment Scale, ranked from worst case scenario to best, alphabetically from A up to E. Fujii’s paraplegia diagnosis is ‘category A’: ‘no motor function of sensory function is preserved.’
Among those to offer support to Fujii since his fall has been Australian jockey Tye Angland, who suffered a catastrophic neck injury in 2018 in Hong Kong, and has been confined to a wheelchair since.
“Tye contacted me around a month ago,” Fujii says.
“He told me, ‘don’t focus on what you have lost, focus on what you have’ and I took a lot from that. What you have lost may never come back, but Tye gave me a positive way to look at things. I also look at the progress Tye has made, his attitude – he has a young family too – and it inspires me.”
“In these two months I have never been really depressed or cried, I have been quite ok. It helps that I have the very best medical treatment I could ask for; the doctors and nurses are world class and JRA has been great. My wife is amazing. So many friends and people are giving me a lot of motivation and saying, you will be alright, and keep staying strong. I have received so many video messages on Twitter and Facebook.”
Among others to have reached out are champion jockeys Frankie Dettori, Zac Purton, Craig Williams and Hugh Bowman.
“I am thankful for all of the support I have received right throughout my career,” Fujii adds. “I am grateful for all of the places I got to travel to, and all of the wonderful people I got to meet. People were always so kind to me and helped me get to the next stage.”
Fujii has beaten the odds before. The skinny kid from Nara Prefecture in central Japan – the son of Yoshimasa, a banker, and Sanae, a housewife, from a family with no racing background – dreamt of riding against Yutaka Take.
Take was an icon of Japanese racing in the 1990s – as he has been ever since – a relentless winning machine that clocked up success at a record-breaking rate.
“He was my idol, he was my superstar,” Fujii says. Then there was, as with anybody who catches the racing bug, an idol horse – but this hero was more fleeting.
Like many racing fans of his era, the hero horse for Fujii growing up – a decade before Deep Impact’s fame transcended the sport – was another standout son of Sunday Silence, Fuji Kiseki. Glistening black and brilliant, he ripped through a career that burned brightly but was over after four dominant starts. Struck down by injury but forever undefeated.
“I saw a television show about Fuji Kiseki, he just looked so beautiful, and I wanted to be a jockey from that moment on,” he says. “After his career he went to Australia to be a shuttle sire, so then I knew there was racing in Australia.”
The year Fujii applied to become a JRA apprentice, aged 15, there were ten spots available, but more than 400 applicants. Fujii was by no means a heavyweight but one kilogram made all of the difference. His weight meant he wasn’t even shortlisted and was forced to take another route.
“The road was so narrow to get into the JRA, only very few people could get in, but when I failed I didn’t give up,” he says. “I just wondered how I could become a jockey and I decided on Australia.”
An advertisement in a Japanese racing magazine drew Fujii to the Australian Racing Institute in the small town of Murwillumbah.
In Australia Fujii found a new idol: jockey Darren Beadman. Fujii admired Beadman so much that when the superstar rider quit the sport at the peak of his powers to take up the ministry, the Japanese jockey found himself struck by a religious compulsion.
“I idolised him so much that I thought if Darren goes to church then maybe it will make me a better jockey,” Fujii laughs.
Soon enough Fujii got to meet one his new racing idol in flesh and blood: Beadman would come to the school to speak to students, and then trained there ahead of his comeback to race riding. Beadman the rider – tough, competitive and polished – and Beadman the person – humble, considerate and kind – both left an indelible mark on Fujii.
“He was my inspiration, there is a photo on the wall at my parents’ place of Darren and I when he came to the school,” Fujii says. “He was always just so polite and generous with his time.”
After Beadman’s return, Fujii’s ascension to apprentice in Sydney, meant they were soon rivals. “What I remember most about Joe is that he was always smiling and just the nicest guy to be around,” says Beadman, who is now an assistant trainer with Godolphin Australia at Warwick Farm.
“Just the other day a few of the trainers here, Gary Portelli and Greg Hickman, were ribbing me about how once I gave Joe a bit of a spray after a race – maybe he had done something wrong in the race and I was upset – the guys were saying, “remember when you got stuck into the nicest bloke in the world?” They still bring it up! That is just because of Joe’s nature though, because he is such a great guy.”
Fujii remembers the race – and the roasting – like it was yesterday. “But yes, Darren was, and still is a hero of mine,” he says. “Even after that!”
Fujii’s Australian experience could be summarised in impressive statistics – he finished second in the metropolitan and New South Wales apprentice titles in 2006. At his peak he rode four of the first six winners at a November 2005 meeting at Randwick, including victory on the future Group One winner Bentley Biscuit.
In total Fujii rode 279 winners at a healthy strike rate of 8.3 percent during an era of racing that featured an all-star cast of riding greats: Jim Cassidy, Beadman, Larry Cassidy, Glen Boss and a young Hugh Bowman, among others. He competed against Angland when he was an apprentice – Fujii would drive him to the races during the early part of his time in town – and even bumped shoulders with the then-rising star Purton.
Yet, what matters more to Fujii than the memories or achievements is the friendships he built through his career. Central to that is the bond he shares with the Mayfield-Smiths, Noel and Emma.
Noel has a flint-hardness typical of his era, so is not prone to hyperbole, but there is a noticeable crack in his voice when he speaks about Fujii.
“Sorry, I will get a bit choked-up,” Mayfield-Smith says down the line from his Coffs Harbour stable.
“I entered racing when I was 12, I am 65 now, and I have never met a more humble and genuine person than Joe Fujii. He is the most well-mannered man I have ever met, a high-value guy that was well-raised. I was disappointed when he left us, but he was chasing his dream. He would always talk about that goal of making it to the JRA.”
I have never met a more humble and genuine person than Joe Fujii.
Fujii has earned this kind of praise – as a person and jockey – in the many places his saddle has taken him.
Singapore-based Dan Beasley, who also competed against Fujii in Sydney, said the Japanese jockey was very much admired at Kranji.
“He is a very determined bloke: the fact it took him five times to get that licence tells you all you need to know about that side of him,” Beasley said.
Joe Fujii passed his JRA licensing test the same day ‘the other Joe’ – Joao Moreira – famously failed in his one and only bid to become a JRA jockey.
As six jockeys sat in a school classroom, their professional lives hinging on a pop quiz revolving around questions relating to Japanese racing rules, JRA protocol and quirky historical and statistical facts, Fujii was sitting directly behind Moreira, “ … and I am thinking, wow, that’s Joao Moreira,” laughs Fujii.
The test facing Fujii and others Japanese jockeys – including those trying to enter from the second-tier NAR – was more layered than what Moreira, and before him, successful applicants Christophe Lemaire and Mirco Demuro, were required to face.
The international jockeys only needed to do the written exam and then an interview with stewards in Japanese. Fujii’s path to the JRA saw him pushed through searching fitness tests, and graded on his expertise in demanding equestrian disciplines such as dressage and showjumping.
As with anywhere he had ridden, Fujii was carving out a respectable JRA career – he had ridden 42 JRA winners – but was making a bigger impact off track.
He struck up friendships with Lemaire and Demuro, who together with Japanese jockey Takuma Ogino, would take long rides on racing bikes through the stunning countryside around Kyoto.
Lemaire, who has lent an apartment to Fujii’s mother so she can be closer to the rehabilitation centre where her son is receiving treatment, recalled the first time he spoke to Fujii after the accident.
“When he said he couldn’t walk or use his lower body, that was a difficult conversation,” Lemaire said. “What can you say? We used to ride bikes together, and he was so strong, and now he is telling you he can’t walk.”
Despite the shock of hearing of his friend’s condition, Lemaire echoed the thoughts of those who know Fujii best.
“I look at what he did going to Australia, doing a lot of things by himself, he is used to fighting for his living and his job,” Lemaire said. “He has had to fight for rides, and fight to get accepted to different places where he went, and now he is going to fight for his new life.”
“He has a fighting spirit that will help him recover mentally, and I really admire him and his attitude. He wants to show the doctors he can recover. He already fixed himself some goals, some targets. I have a lot of admiration for him and his attitude.”
“I just wish we could have another bike ride together.”
A return to riding of any sort might seem like just a dream, but Fujii’s attitude remains one of dogged determination and commitment.
“As a young boy I dreamt of being a jockey and riding against Yutaka Take, and it took me 24 years but my dream came true,” he says.
“When people ask me how I accept being paralysed. Well, my goal setting is similar to when I was trying to get into the JRA. There is always some hope, somewhere. If you really want to achieve what you want, you have to commit yourself. It might take a long time but I proved that I can become a JRA jockey, so my mindset has been the same since the fall: If I believe I can walk, then maybe it can happen again.”
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