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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
Frankie Dettori and Hiroyuki Uchida are both 52 and they both won a Group 1 at the weekend, but only one has the stated intention to continue riding indefinitely.
Hiroyuki Uchida stood on a box in the pouring rain at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday, and it was as if he was Leonard Bernstein before the New York Philharmonic. Microphone in hand, answering an unseen interviewer’s questions, he addressed the crowd of 28,000 after a thrilling NHK Mile Cup win and they listened quietly, intently, clapping warmly as the jockey’s words hit the right emotional chords.
“I wasn’t a JRA jockey back then, but I am now,” he said when reminded it was 2007 when he last won this race. The crowd cooed, laughed warmly with him, and clapped for the former NAR rider, one of the few to have climbed up from the ‘local’ second tier of Japanese racing to the JRA’s top table.
“It is important to win this as a JRA jockey,” he added to another burst of applause.
Then he thanked the fans, waved both hands and hopped down from the box; he punched the air, signed autographs, and ran down the tunnel back to Tokyo’s subterranean unsaddling area and jockeys’ room; the tunnel where minutes earlier spontaneous cheers and clapping had broken out as he returned drenched, but beaming, after his unheralded longshot win on Champagne Color.
Jubilant scenes at Tokyo on Sunday as 52-year-old Hiroyuki Uchida celebrated Champagne Color's surprise G1 NHK Mile Cup victory. #NHKマイルカップ #シャンパンカラー pic.twitter.com/zadhqBKh9O
— Asian Racing Report (@AsianRacingRep) May 8, 2023
“Japanese fans are always very passionate and that makes me feel happy; although racing fans around the world are also passionate, in Japan the passion is something very different,” he told Asian Racing Report, alluding to the deep enthusiasm and knowledge among the crowd of young, old, and in-between, many of whom had purchased their collectible NHK Mile Cup souvenirs at the JRA’s on-course ‘Turfy’ outlets.
While the charismatic culture of Japanese racing, with its subset fan elements such as the Uma Musume entertainment phenomenon, gives the scene a uniqueness, when it comes to the crunch, much like anywhere else, the sport and the sight of its athletes racing at their optimum is at the heart of the fans’ connection.
Yet the 12-race fixture had been flat, having a business-like feel to it, not helped perhaps by the lowering greyness of the rain storm and Tokyo’s massive grandstand and concourse being about a quarter full. The vibe lifted when the Group 1 feature came around – the hand-clapping when the starter raises his flag will always get things buzzing – and Uchida’s popular win sparked real delight.
After all, every good sports fan loves an underdog story. The horse was 22.2 in the market, but if odds were measured solely on the form of the trainer and jockey, they would have been longer. What odds trainer Tsuyoshi Tanaka, without a win in 72 attempts this year and seven years since his last Group 1? And what odds Uchida? He had not won a Group 1 race since February 2018; a veteran in his fifties whose peak days riding the madcap champion Gold Ship are eight years past.
As we look towards Sunday's G1 Satsuki Sho at Nakayama, a throwback to 2012 and a masterful piece of Gold Ship-Hiroyuki Uchida magic. ✨🦄 #皐月賞 #ゴールドシップ pic.twitter.com/hstvw5XuC7
— Asian Racing Report (@AsianRacingRep) April 12, 2023
But the weekend belonged to veterans: one day earlier, Frankie Dettori, the same age as Uchida, had won his ‘long goodbye’ 2,000 Guineas in England, and that very morning, Tokyo time, the 45-year-old Javier Castellano, a veteran of 15 Kentucky Derby attempts, at last won America’s biggest race.
Dettori’s emotions after his Classic victory suggested a man wrestling to come to terms with his long-announced retirement at the end of this season; Castellano thanked ‘the Lord’ for his win, and, being at the junior end of the veteran class, has a few years left, God willing; Uchida, too, is not thinking of a ‘pipe and slippers’ future.
Champagne Color upsets them in the G1 NHK Mile Cup. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)
Frankie Dettori drives home Chaldean in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Kentucky Derby glory for Javier Castellano. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
“This is my 35th year of riding, and in every industry the shift from the older to the younger generations is something that must happen, this is uncontrollable, but I am still able,” Uchida said.
“As long as I can take good care of every opportunity that I am given, when I can come across a horse like Champagne Color, because I have much experience, I believe I can keep a calm head and ride them to the required level.”
He did just that in the race, facing the rain and the good to soft track, bumping and driving for a head success. Champagne Color had entered the contest as a winner of two from four races; those wins came as a juvenile at his first two starts; back in January he finished sixth in a Group 3 behind subsequent G1 Satsuki Sho winner Sol Oriens and then came a recent third in the G2 New Zealand Trophy, a recognised NHK Mile Cup trial.
The colt’s profile is very much NHK Mile Cup. It is a race for horses that have perhaps fallen into a crack: not forward enough, or dipped in form, or lacking the stamina or strength for a Satsuki Sho over 2000 metres, they are held back a couple of weeks after the Classic for the ‘softer’ mile option.
Back in the 1990s, star gallopers Seeking The Pearl and El Condor Pasa won the race as foreign-bred horses, barred from Japan’s Classics; since the Classics were opened up in 2001, the heavyweight King Kamehameha won the race in 2004 en route to winning the Derby, the G1 Tokyo Yushun, but in recent times it has been hit-and-miss in terms of quality, making the NHK Mile Cup one of the lesser among Japan’s strong line-up of G1 races.
Champagne Color’s trainer Tanaka said he would get the horse back to the stable before deciding what next. Tanaka’s only previous Group 1 winner was Logotype, a three-time scorer in the grade, including the Yasuda Kinen in 2016 when he defeated the red-hot favourite Maurice. The 62-year-old has also succeeded with the high-class steeplechasers, Federalist and Majesty Bio.
His current big-race hero is the latest offspring of the late Duramente to nail a Group 1 and adds emphasis to the scale of the stallion’s loss at age nine.
But the NHK Mile Cup is all about three-year-olds looking forward; this year it is also about a middle-aged jockey doing the same.
Hiroyuki Uchida spoke to Asian Racing Report at Tokyo. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Dettori’s time in the saddle might be numbered but Uchida’s victory has only stimulated his appetite. He has no intention to follow the Italian’s lead, not while he is still enjoying it and the support remains.
“I will continue riding as long as I can,” he said, long after the last race. “As long as there are fans here, I will continue to do my best.”
If the fans had not already headed home, that line would have got him an ovation too.
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