Fukunaga’s last ride: smiles, tears and relief

The two-time champion jockey bowed out of his distinguished race-riding career at Riyadh on Saturday and has already made plans to travel overseas in preparation for his career as a JRA trainer.

An emotional Midori Matsuo waits for her husband Yuichi Fukunaga to return from his final ride at Riyadh. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Yuichi Fukunaga’s face gave no sign that anything was out of the ordinary as he waited for the ‘mount-up’ bell before the Riyadh Dirt Sprint: he nodded a quick bow to the connections of Remake and chatted casually.

But the little things give us away. As he smiled and talked, Fukunaga shifted repeatedly from foot to foot, all the while flicking and pressing the end of his whip at the toe of his right boot in an unconscious indication that his mind might be at least partly elsewhere.

“Today is the last day of my jockey life, so I had a lot of memories coming into my mind before the race,” he told Asian Racing Report ahead of his next challenge as a JRA licensed trainer.

Yoshito Yahagi, for whom Fukunaga rode the Triple Crown hero Contrail, crossed the paddock to offer a handshake and warm words. The bell rang and moments later Fukunaga was sitting atop Remake, running the red reins through his hands to find easily the sweet grip he had felt in such a moment about nineteen-and-a-half-thousand times before; he slipped his right foot into its iron and reached down with his hand to make sure his left foot was in the comfortable spot, then out he went to compete for the final time.  

There was to be no victory to enhance the goodbye, but it was not needed: Fukunaga has known more glory than most jockeys ever will. His 2,636-plus wins include a long list of majors: three Tokyo Yushun triumphs, three Yushun Himbas, two Satsuki Shos, an Oka Sho and a Kikuka Sho for a full-house of Japanese classics; a Japan Cup, the Autumn Tenno Sho, two Yasuda Kinens, a Sprinters Stakes, three Takamatsunomiya Kinens and more besides.

Internationally, he made history as the first Japanese jockey to ride a Japanese-trained horse to victory in North America when he guided Cesario in the American Oaks in 2005; he also steered Just A Way to a sensational Dubai Turf success and was aboard Eishin Preston for his QEII Cup and Hong Kong Mile wins at Sha Tin. 


Yuichi Fukunaga roars after Eishin Preston's dominant victory in the 2001 Hong Kong Mile. (Photo by Ricky Chung/Getty Images)

Yuichi Fukunaga celebrates riding Just A Way to victory in the Dubai Duty Free on March 29, 2014. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Fukunaga followed his father, Yoichi Fukunaga, in becoming a leading jockey: he had his first ride at Chukyo on March 2, 1996, a win for his master, Shuji Kitahashi, and was champion jockey in 2011 and 2013. But at age 46, just 15 months after the brilliant Contrail’s career-capping Japan Cup win, Fukunaga, too, bowed out while still among the elite.

Remake, that final mount, ran home third and as Fukunaga pulled the four-year-old to a stop and turned back towards the grandstand, he looked to the skies.

“Is it over? I thought. There was this ‘So that’s it’ feeling,” he said.

His wife, Midori Matsuo, let loose her emotions at the final realisation that, yes, it was over. Dressed in a blue kimono, she ran to the trackside rail with tears streaming: a jockey runs a dangerous gauntlet every time they go out to ride and their closest loved ones know and feel that most.

“She is relieved. And my parents too,” Fukunaga said, delivering his words carefully, pausing, fiddling with his cuffs, brimming with contained emotion.

I believe that completing my work (as a jockey) is the greatest filial duty to my parents. They had been worrying about me for a long time and I have had various injuries in my career, but I was able to finish in one piece and I am in good health. I think I can let them put their worries down now.”

Fukunaga spoke after he had exited the jockeys’ room for the final time as a professional rider. His wife and gathered media had waited patiently outside, their focus entirely on their retiring hero as the Riyadh Dirt Sprint winning rider Frankie Dettori’s post-race interview was broadcast on the big screen behind them: the US raider Elite Power’s impressive success was of little concern to the group.     

Yuichi Fukunaga with wife Midori Matsuo at Riyadh. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Matsuo, well-known in her own right as an actress and TV personality, continued to wipe away tears as she smiled and waited for her husband, watching the weighing room doorway for a final time.

When Fukunaga emerged, he was wearing a plain grey suit and blue tie with his jockey gear packed away in a black, pull-along equipment case; he moved aside, pressed into a corner, to allow the silked-up riders for the Saudi Cup to get on with their business, then joined his wife and the camera-toting media crowd.  

He ran through the usual post-race questions: the race unfolded as he had imagined; it was good experience for Remake; the dirt felt ‘stiffer’ than in training but the Japanese horses handled it; he was focused on the job at hand even though it was his last. Then came the thanks to all the people who had supported him.

“I have many things on my mind, but I hope to express my feelings at the retirement ceremony when I return to Japan,” he said.

Fukunaga’s retirement was one of three that formed a subplot to the Saudi Cup build-up. Brazilian ace Joao Moreira will travel the world over the next 18 months to two years as he winds down his career, and the Italian Dettori, a British racing institution, has said he will retire after the Breeders’ Cup in November.

A jogging Dettori had to slow and squeeze through the throng around Fukunaga as he went into the jockeys’ room to get ready for his Saudi Cup ride on Country Grammer. He would finish second to the Yahagi-trained Panthalassa and now rolls on to his next big meeting and a repeat of the focus on his retirement that will not end for another nine months: a Dettori Groundhog Day of sorts.

That phase has now passed for Fukunaga. He is done and is already moving on.

Yuichi Fukunaga before his second-to-last ride on Ecoro Ares. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

“I’m thinking I will travel to the United States to attend some sales, and, in the summer, I will go to Britain and spend time at Roger Varian’s stables to see how he does things; I plan to study stable operations and watch and learn,” he said.

While Fukunaga will never again know the thrill of riding a horse in racing conditions, he will always have the memories, and when he looks back on his distinguished career as a jockey, one achievement will stand out above the rest.

“Winning the Triple Crown with Contrail,” he said. “It was a special thing and I’m very proud that I was able to achieve that.”

And with that last word he joined his wife and departed, walking away on his terms and into a new career.




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