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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
Asian Racing Report talks to David Egan, who is turning heads on the JRA circuit as he takes another step towards his aim of joining the international jockey elite.
Chukyo racecourse on the second Sunday in January was a cold place, dry but biting. “It gets in your bones,” says David Egan. But as the pale sun dipped low that afternoon, the young Irishman was warmed by a last-race victory: wearing the renowned silks of Sunday Racing, his hands high on the chestnut mare’s neck, arms thrusting, he repelled the late, long-reined, deep-seat drive of Japan’s newest champion, the in-form Yuga Kawada.
Egan is a rider with burgeoning international scope and success in Japan is lifting him to the next level of recognition. His win on Macha Mong Ruad followed a double the day before and took him to third in the 2023 JRA standings with five wins, giving him an impressive 14 victories since he arrived in Japan mid-December on a short winter contract. It also scuppered the rampant Kawada’s attempt to seal a five-timer on the card.
The last fact is pointed out to Egan. “Yeah,” he says, hesitantly, and a pause follows. “Yuga has been very helpful to me.”
— Team Iwata (@JayRAye02) January 9, 2023
There is a sense that while Egan is ice-cool and steely in competition, he is not one to revel in a victory that foiled a person he respects, not only “a proven world class jockey” but also a man who has welcomed him in.
“Yuga cooked dinner for me in his house, he’s been a very big help to someone who is in a new country, he’s a familiar face who is helping me and that’s nice to have,” he says.
“To have that relationship with the champion jockey, it’s been quite nice because certain things jockeys do here and the way they ride, he might see me do something and he’ll take me aside and give me a pointer or two about how to ride some of the tracks and things like that.”
Egan, 23, first got to know Kawada “a couple of summers ago” when the Japanese star spent time at Roger Varian’s Newmarket stable, the yard where Egan served his champion apprenticeship. He retains a strong connection with Varian that has already brought him a Classic triumph, on Eldar Eldarov in last year’s G1 St Leger, and has benefited his Japanese winter odyssey.
His contracted owner in Japan is Katsuji Nakauchida, the father of the JRA’s 2021 leading trainer Mitsu Nakauchida, who in turn is married to the sister of Hanako Varian, Roger Varian’s wife. But then Egan has grown up with connections all around him, without even realising it at first.
David Egan drives home Mikki Twinkle at Chukyo. (Photo by @_Storm_Vanguard)
Japan's champion jockey Yuga Kawada. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Japan's champion trainer Mitsu Nakauchida with Royal Ascot contender Grenadier Guards. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
“For other people my parents were John Egan the jockey and Sandra Hughes the National Hunt trainer but to me they were mum and dad,” he says.
Then there is his uncle, the three-time British champion jockey Richard Hughes; and his grandfather is the late Dessie Hughes, a renowned jump jockey whose achievements as a trainer included Hardy Eustace’s two Champion Hurdle wins.
“I grew up on my granda’s yard, so I was always around the National Hunt horses. I thought it was all normal, it was a normal environment for me but for a horse lover it was heaven, I suppose. It was my backyard,” he says and touches on warm recollections of Hardy Eustace and the sadly ill-fated Triumph Hurdle winner Our Connor.
His heritage in the sport means rare opportunities have been open to him, of that there is no doubt, and he is aware of it.
“I had a grounding that a lot of people wouldn’t have,” he says. “That inside knowledge of racing and of being around horses, being at the races from a young age probably built my love for it without even knowing it because it was part of life.”
But those connections only take an aspiring jockey so far. As his agent Tony Hind points out, “Elvis Presley had a brother but he couldn’t sing a note”: there needs to be innate talent, which must be combined with the dedicated hard work needed to make the most of it all, and the character to develop those connections into positive, fruitful relationships.
David Egan celebrates riding the first four winners of a meeting at Newbury. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
“He studies it all very hard, each race that he’s riding in and the horses that he’s riding,” says John Egan. “He watches a lot of videos and does a lot of work behind the scenes. He knows where he’s going to be in a race, he’ll have a Plan A and a Plan B and he has a very good brain: you can see it in how well he reads a race.
“And he worked hard on his strength and fitness from an early age as well. I was running a stud in Ireland when he started a bit of pony racing, so he was riding out with me there every day on the stud. We got an Equicizer, and he used to do chin-ups on this bar outside the back door.”
His early years also featured showjumping and hunting but it was the pony racing that sparked his ambition to become a jockey.
“Once I got the need for speed, I was hooked,” he says. “Before then it was more of a love and a passion for horses but I suppose that’s what you need to get before anything else because the love of the horse and riding is what it’s all about.”
Egan Snr. rode overseas as a jockey and ensured his son gained valuable international experience through his teenage years: a working holiday to Australia at 16, then two summers at Laurel Park in the US with his dad’s old friend from his time in Macau, the jockey-turned-trainer Jose Corrales. He has since ridden winters in India and Bahrain.
“I pushed him towards whatever I thought would benefit him later,” his dad says. “It worked, but he’s big enough and old enough now that he doesn’t need me to make his decisions or guide him. He’s on the road now and he’s learnt and matured himself so he can make his own decisions.”
David Egan and jockey Saffie Osborne at Royal Ascot. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
His early grounding has meant that by his early 20s he has a polished set of skills, not only as a horseman and a jockey but as a communicator. Egan gives thought to his words and is unhurried in his speech, which has a tone and manner of easy politeness: he has always been this way, his father says.
During his current stint in Japan, Egan has been consciously attempting to pick up Japanese vocabulary.
“You kind of have to,” he says. “I knew there was not going to be a lot of English over here but actually how little English is used here in everyday life … from even a menu in a restaurant, there is literally no English.
“I’ve learnt a bit of horse lingo, so certain words from a jockey’s point of view that I need to understand or explain to a trainer how the horse feels in the morning, without needing to go into detail. Just certain words, whether it’s saying a horse is hanging to the right or hanging to the left, certain things like that, I have got the basic vocabulary.
“It shows that you’re willing to learn a little bit of Japanese and not rely on your interpreter the whole time. It shows them my willingness, I think.”
He has risen to the challenge of a Japanese winter and has enjoyed how the JRA circuit functions, from entering Friday night jockey quarantine to the extra time added in for everyone to take a sensible lunch break after race four on a 12-race card.
“I’m impressed more than anything with the way things are done here, those little things, and then the standard of racing out here and the prize money is phenomenal,” he says
Egan’s ambitions are clear. Even before his St Leger success last September he had won the world’s richest race, the Saudi Cup, the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic and the G1 Juddmonte International on Mishriff, and he is intent on establishing his name as one of those elite international jockeys that can pick up Group 1 rides from Chukyo to Churchill Downs and deliver results. And that means the former champion apprentice wants to be the outright top jockey on the domestic scene too.
David Egan's partnership with Mishriff has led to broader opportunities. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
“I would love to be champion jockey in Britain someday,” he says.
His father has “little doubt that he will be champion jockey,” adding “he’s one of the best around at the minute,” and points to the support he has and his “brain” as being the factors that will set him apart from a rising crop of good young riders.
But Hind, the man famed for finding the rides needed to make champion jockeys – Hughes, Ryan Moore, Jim Crowley and William Buick – is even more forthright.
“It will happen in the next five years,” the agent says emphatically. “I’ve brought lots of champions up in my time and David’s attitude towards racing is 100 per cent. His work ethic is second to nobody, he’s young and he’s ambitious, he’s very fit, he rides at a good weight and it’s just onwards and upwards for him.
“He’s still learning his trade but he’s already at a very high level, he’s one of the top five jockeys in the UK now and I see him going all the way to the top. He could go anywhere to ride: Dubai, Australia, America, Japan, Hong Kong, it doesn’t matter now.”
David Egan and Mishriff defeat Japan's Chrono Genesis to win the Dubai Sheema Classic. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
Egan was no more than a toddler when his father rode in Hong Kong and was four months short of his third birthday when the family left. But he retains one particularly fond memory of being with his nanny and plucking a small turtle from a pond inside Sha Tin racecourse then taking it back proudly to the family apartment.
“I had to go and put it back of course,” he says, but that early period in his life, playing with the children of trainer David Hayes and another pre-schooler destined to be a jockey, Thore Hammer-Hansen, left at least a small impression. The way his career is progressing, there is a good chance that one day he might return.
“I’m open to anything really, I’m young in my career and I’d think about every new challenge, and if I thought it was the right thing, I’d take the opportunity with both hands,” he says.
“An international rider is something that I would want to be known as, I think every jockey wants that. It doesn’t really feel like a job to me, to be travelling the world doing what I love.”
For now, his focus is Japan and nine rides on another 12-race card at chilly Chukyo this weekend, including aboard the Japan Cup third Weltreisende in the G2 Nikkei Shinshun Hai. The owner is Sunday Racing again, the trainer is Yasutoshi Ikee: whatever their background, a rider doesn’t keep getting that kind of support unless he can deliver the goods.
And, as his father says, “When he gets the chance on the horses, he does deliver.” Egan’s fourteen wins in under a month are some proof of that.
A champion jockey title is Yuga Kawada’s destiny
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