After three successful years, Japanese jockey Kanichiro “Joe” Fujii has left Korea to take up a new challenge and fulfill a long-standing ambition to ride in his native Japan.
Fujii joined Busan Racecourse from Australia in June 2012 and he quickly made an impact, winning on his very first ride.
The Japanese jockey proved popular and continued to ride regular winners throughout the summer and autumn and in November 2012, Fujii claimed his first Korean Stakes victory, partnering Gamdonguibada to triumph in the Gyeongnam Governor’s Cup. He would team up with the same filly again in the nation’s most prestigious race, the Grand Prix Stakes, at Seoul Racecourse the following month.
In guiding her to victory once more, Fujii became the first foreign jockey to win the Grand Prix. After the race, he took the filly back down in front of the grandstand to show the racing public. It was something that hadn’t been done in Korea before but something the local jockeys would quickly start to copy after a big race win.
Fujii didn’t have to wait long to do it again. In May 2013, he returned to Seoul and on board another filly, Speedy First, he became the first foreign jockey to win the Korean Derby. Speedy First would unseat Fujii in the opening stages of the Gyeongnam Do Min Ilbo in July but the following month, the pair re-united to claim victory in the Korean Oaks. Naturally, in victory Fujii was the first foreign jockey to win that particular race too.
Two major wins would follow in the first half of 2014. While Gamdonguibada had been unsuccessful in her attempt to defend the Grand Prix in 2013 and another jockey had ridden her to win the first leg of the Queens’ Tour, the Ttukseom Cup at Seoul, Fujii would be restored to the ride for the KNN Cup at Busan in early March and they would go on to win by eleven lengths. Three weeks later, Fujii went up to Seoul and partnered Magic Dancer to success in the Jeju Governor’s Cup.
Just a week later, however, would be the start of what would be a challenging final year in Korea for Fujii. A broken shoulder suffered in an accident coming out of the gates in a race last July resulted in a broken shoulder which would ultimately keep him out until December. During his time out, Fujii embarked on a mini-tour of the racing world, taking in Hong Kong, France, the UK and his native Japan and was also to be seen watching races in Seoul.
He returned characteristically with a winner in December and once more was a regular visitor to the winner’s circle even though he perhaps wasn’t getting the same caliber of mounts on as regular a basis as he was before his fall. Fujii then became the victim of circumstance when his saddle accidentally slipped when riding the odds-on favourite in a race at Busan. Unfortunately, it came just one week after rioting punters at Seoul extracted a payout of bets placed on a disqualified winner who had weighed in light.
Opportunists at Busan decided to try the same thing and the rest of the card was cancelled. With the government having lost revenue on four races in the space of two weeks, a police investigation was ordered as well as a public audit of the Korea Racing Authority, which is a government organisation.
There was never any case for anyone to answer on a saddle accidentally slipping but the audit and investigation meant it was over a month of uncertainty for Fujii before the KRA was in a position to be able to issue the lightest possible sanction to the jockey (a “reprimand”) and a fine for the Trainer. Fujii continued riding and received a hugely positive reception from punters when in Seoul for the Korean Derby in May.
Although a Busan jockey, it was at Seoul where Fujii’s biggest race wins came and it was perhaps fitting that his final triumph in Korea – for now – would be in the capital city. And it was another historic occasion. Esmeraldina was the first JRA horse to run in Korea in what was the first International Open race to be run in Seoul, the Ttukseom Cup. Connections could have brought over their own jockey from Japan yet despite the trainer never having met Fujii before, they decided that he would be their man.
They were proved right with Fujii delivering a clinical ride as Esmeraldina cruised to victory and once again, the jockey was able to parade in front of the Seoul grandstand a winner.
As it turned out, Esmeraldina was his final winner in Korea this time around. A magnificent ambassador for the sport, he has won more races than any other foreign jockey in this country, more even than the great Toshio Uchida. Hugely popular with connections, the Korean racing media, administrators and stewards and even the majority of local jockeys, he will be missed.
Joe Fujii will be riding in Hokkaido for the foreseeable future. He will surely be successful and it is very much hoped that we see him back in the Seoul or Busan winner’s circle one day soon.