Happy Valley double lands Dettori third championship; Fukunaga fails to score
Frankie Dettori scooped two wins to clinch the 14th edition of the Hong Kong International Jockeys' Championship Dec. 7 at Happy Valley Racecourse as he topped the jockey scoreboard with a total final 30 points. James McDonald, the new 19-year-old hotshot from New Zealand, scored second place in the first leg and caught Andrasch Starke just before the wire in the second leg aboard Sunny More. McDonald ended with 18 points for second place. France's Christophe Lemaire picked up the third leg partnered with the Derek Cruz-trained My Home Town. A sixth place in the first leg helped boost his score to 12 for a third place overall.
Yuichi Fukunaga, who appeared in the event for the first time, was unable to score any points whatsoever in the series and ended in last place. Fukunaga, however, was not alone in failing to pick up a single point. Black Caviar regular rider Luke Nolen of Australia and the young French ace Maxime Guyon all ended with a cumulative zero.
Dettori's third win of the series, which ties him with Douglas Whyte for three apiece, came an entire decade after his last in 2001. Riding in the championship for the first time since 2003, Dettori won the 1,650-meter first leg by 2 lengths aboard Travel Guide, then scored a 12th and a second in the next two races, before capturing the final leg aboard the Tony Cruz-trained Regency Winner. "I haven't ridden in this competition for a long time, as I have had to attend the Christmas nativity plays of my five children, but now they are older, I asked my wife if I could come here and she said ‘Yes'! I knew I had chances tonight, and the first race was fairly easy, but after that I knew I had to concentrate. When it came to the last race, I had a lot of luck, and it worked out well in the end."
Fukunaga, the current No. 2 among JRA jockeys, remained upbeat in his comments to the Japanese press. Surrounded by a bevy of reporters and photographers, Fukunaga said he had greatly enjoyed his championship debut. "It's a good atmosphere and the racing was easier than I'd thought," he said. No stranger to Hong Kong but new to Happy Valley, the possible difficulties Fukunaga spoke of were the track's turns, so tight the track is banked. But, he said, "The horses are used to it and I didn't have to worry. They knew where to go." Naturally, Fukunaga had not left it entirely up to the horses. He'd done his homework well, studying videos of races held at the track.
Still, luck was not with him. "I had really wanted to be able to show a little something at some point but couldn't," he said. "Two of my mounts were the least favorites in the field." And, in a heated moment following the third leg, trainer Peter Ng threatened to seek a suspension for Fukunaga's "failure" to ride the horse the way he had envisioned. Oddly, none of his visions had been relayed to Fukunaga pre-race. "He was pretty scary-looking," Fukunaga said, obviously shaken by the trainer's emotional display but trying to shrug it off as diplomatically as he could.
One reporter pointed out that the trainer may have been expecting miracles from Fukunaga, famous in Hong Kong for his success aboard Eishin Preston. The two captured the Hong Kong Mile in 2001, then notched successive wins of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup the following two years.
Unfortunately, Fukunaga's pairings Wednesday night were of a far different caliber. In the first leg of the championship, the third race on the Wednesday night card at Happy Valley, Fukunaga rode the 3-year-old Classic Awards to a seventh-place finish, the gelding's best result in six winless starts. The second leg, the best result of the evening for Fukunaga, was a fifth aboard the 5-year-old Rock of Gibraltar gelding Good Looking Watch, who is 1 for 19. The sixth race of the night and third leg of the championship brought a sixth place aboard the Jungle Pocket-sired My Goal, a 7-year-old bred in New Zealand who is now 5 for 36. Wrapping up the event was an eighth-place performance on another 7-year-old, Win a Dozen, whose record stands at a lackluster 3 for 48
Fukunaga had not been daunted by the task ahead of him going into the event. "I thought I would have a chance. The world's best riders were here but I thought I could hold my own. I admit I was kind of tense about the fact that Dettori was riding," he said with a chuckle.
"I wish I could have done better as the representative for Japan, but just wasn't able to get results. I need to be able to get those results anywhere I go and think I can. The Japanese horses are good and if they go abroad I don't want people to say, ‘Let's put a local rider up,' " Fukunaga explained. "I do need to be able to talk to people though. That is something I need to work on," he said sheepishly in reference to his lack of prowess in foreign languages.
Fukunaga joined an elite mix of 12 riders from nine countries: Luke Nolen from Australia, Maxime Guyon and Christophe Lemaire from France, Germany's Andrasch Starke, Ryan Moore from Great Britain, Irishiman John Murtagh, James McDonald of New Zealand, Frankie Dettori of Italy and three ridersrepresenting Hong Kong -- Douglas Whyte, Brett Prebble and Matthew Chadwick.
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Hong Kong Jockey Club
Cathay Pacific International Jockeys' Championship