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Fallen Japanese rider Taiki Yanagida was set to fulfill a long-held dream to ride in the NAR before he succumbed to injuries suffered in a race fall at Cambridge in New Zealand.
Lance O’Sullivan already knew his new apprentice was hard working, that much was obvious; Taiki Yanagida was first to arrive and last to leave the bustling Wexford Stables at Matamata each morning. But it wasn’t until work was finished, and O’Sullivan was driving out through the hills along Hopkins Road, way out of town, that he realised just how determined the new guy from Japan really was.
“He would work all morning and then you’d see him running, five kilometres out of town … and he could run. He was a real athlete,” O’Sullivan said. “His work ethic was just phenomenal.”
He was a real athlete. His work ethic was just phenomenal.
Yanagida had come to New Zealand as a work rider but approached O’Sullivan for an apprenticeship in 2016. Plenty of new riders do that much – O’Sullivan is one of New Zealand’s all-time greats as a jockey, an esteemed mentor to young riders and co-trainer with Andrew Scott at the leading stable – but the difference was that Yanagida stayed the course.
“Thing is with apprentices here is that they can chop and change, they will work with somebody for a while and then they will work with somebody else for a while where they can get a better gig where they don’t need to work in the afternoon,” O’Sullivan said. “But he was the one kid who did his whole apprenticeship with us. And he did it the old-fashioned way, the apprenticeship that we used to do – eight hours per day – gee he worked hard.”
Yanagida takes out the G3 Sunline Vase aboard Bellatrix Black at Ellerslie. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk/Trish Dunell)
Yanagida guides Stars 'N' Cream to an all-the-way win at Tauranga. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk/Kenton Wright)
Taiki Yanagida wins on Legarto at Matamata in June. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk/Trish Dunell)
Yanagida was a natural athlete and fitness fanatic, but he was no natural jockey. He was 170cm tall, and he grew up in urban environments. His previous experience on horseback was limited, and aboard ponies.
“I wanted to try and become a jockey but my mum didn’t agree, she said I must go to university first,” he said in an interview with Raceform. “I completed one year at university before I said I was going to Australia to train to be a jockey.”
The community of Japanese riders and racing people across the Asia-Pacific region is relatively small and widespread but they are close knit, drawn together by a love of horses and kinship forged in the similarities of their stories. It usually goes something like this: a kid from the city falls in love with racing and with a lack of opportunities at home, they chase their dreams abroad despite language and cultural barriers.
That is how Yanagida first made his way to Australia, progressing from those pony rides to thoroughbreds through training at Peppertree Farm near Sydney, then on to provincial trainer Tracy Bartley and then the city stables of Peter and Paul Snowden at Randwick.
Along the way he met countrymen Kosi Kawakami and Yusuke Ichikawa, who had both trod the path before him from Japanese city kid to jockey.
“He was only a kid when I first met him, and he had a dream that he wanted to be a jockey,” Kawakami said. “He was just new to it, and he couldn’t speak much English but he just kept asking so many questions – he was just so full of respect for anybody who had become a jockey.”
Ichikawa called his friend “a true gentleman”
“He was well-mannered, well-educated, but I always thought he was a little too respectful to me, if that makes sense, just because I was riding in races. He wanted to ask questions but was just too shy. He was just a nice, genuine guy.”
Visa issues in Australia forced Yanagida to look to New Zealand, where he gained an apprenticeship and rode 162 winners in less than five years. After graduating he moved on from Wexford to the Ballymore Stables of Mike Moroney, under New Zealand co-trainer Pam Gerard. There he won a Group 2 aboard his favourite horse Dragon Queen and was beginning to gain traction as a big-race jockey.
Yanagida wins the G2 Westbury Classic aboard Dragon Queen. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk/Kristin Ledington)
It is telling that when Gerard starts to speak about Yanagida’s impact at her stables it is in the present tense. The stories she tells are about how he is with horses, not how he was, and what he does at Ballymore, not what he did there.
It is not just because the 28-year-old’s death is so recent, it is that the jockey’s spirit will live on in the hearts of the stable’s staff.
“He is just such a dedicated, lovable young fella,” Gerard said. “He is just an absolute pleasure to work with, nothing is ever a problem, he is totally dedicated to his job.”
There was only one thing that Yanagida held above his career goals, and that was family, so when borders reopened between Japan and New Zealand in June this year and he had the choice of pushing beyond 42 wins for the season or seeing his mother, Kayano, and sisters Ayano and Chiaki, for the first time in four years, the choice was easy.
“I was aiming for 50 wins, but then when the borders opened I decided to book my ticket home, so that will have to wait,” he said in his final interview, before returning home for a month in Kyoto with family.
“His whole focus throughout his career was giving his mum the best life she could have,” Gerard said. “His mum and his family have done it tough and his whole focus was that he wanted to get residency here, so he could buy a house and bring his mum here to live with him. That was his plan. Everything he did was for his mum.”
Taiki Yanagida had been granted an NAR riding licence. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk/Trish Dunell)
Upon returning from Japan, Yanagida brought good news. He had been granted a three-month licence to ride in the NAR, the lucrative second tier of racing in Japan.
Gerard believes that the breakthrough had given Yanagida a much-needed confidence boost and he was ready to take the next step as a jockey.
“I felt he had gained confidence that he could do it, and that he wasn’t far off some of the better jockeys in New Zealand,” she said. “He got there through his work ethic and dedication. He was just below those best ones and he had a real chance of really stepping himself up the ladder this year and had a really good rapport with all of the trainers. He just needed a break getting on those better horses in the big races.”
It was clear that his career was moving in that direction. After a career-best season, on his first day back, August 3, he had ridden his first winner of the new term. Two races later he had ridden his final race.
When the New Zealand racing fraternity gather at Matamata Racecourse for a memorial service on Monday it won’t be just the jockey dubbed Tiger they will remember, but the person whose positive attitude left an indelible mark on those who crossed paths with him, on or off the track.
“He was just a good person,” O’Sullivan said. “He was very appreciative of any opportunity he was given and just took nothing for granted.
“He wouldn’t have an enemy in the world, he had an infectious smile, he was just hard not to like.
“There hadn’t been an accident like this around here for a long time, but the mourning for him, I don’t think I have seen anything like it. There is an incredible amount of emotion, and it just shows how popular he was and how well-liked he was. It’s not just our staff that are absolutely devastated, everybody here is, and it’s just so hard, because of the type of person he was. He was just such a decent person.”
Gerard added: “I wish he could be here just to see. I wish he could see just how popular he was, he has touched the hearts of everybody here.”
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