Fukunaga hopes Arc goes just his way
PARIS - The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is regarded as the greatest prize in racing by the Japanese and two-time champion jockey Yuichi Fukunaga hopes he finally delivers it to them when he rides the hotly-fancied Just A Way at Longchamp on Sunday.
The 37-year-old, who became a jockey despite his father nine-time champion Yoichi being paralysed after a fall aged 29 in 1979, partnered Just A Way to a devastating six-length victory in the Group One Dubai Duty Free in March.
While it was an eye-catching performance, doubts persist as to whether the five-year-old trained by Naosuke Sugai, who also saddles another five-year-old in Gold Ship, will stay over a distance that is three furlongs longer than he won over in Dubai.
However, Fukunaga is adamant he would not be in France unless he felt the horse had a genuine chance of ending Japan's frustrating 45 year quest to win the Arc, which has seen their runners fill second spot on four occasions, including the last two editions with Orfevre.
"For the Japanese there are many big race possibilities abroad but for us as a nation the Arc is the greatest race, the top of the tops," said Fukunaga after partnering Just A Way in his final all-out gallop prior to the race in Chantilly on Wednesday.
"I waited a long time to have a ride that is good enough to race in the Arc and now I have struck lucky and I hope to seize this opportunity for the Japanese people," said Fukunaga, who chose being a jockey in preference to becoming a footballer or a teacher.
While Fukunaga, who said Just A Way felt as good as he had done in Dubai, has had a competitive ride round the tricky Longchamp track, both Sugai and Hiroyoshi Matsuda, trainer of the third runner, the three-year-old filly Harp Star, opted not to run them in the Arc trials in early September as their predecessors have done.
Sugai, who consulted Orfevre's trainer Yasutoshi Ikee about preparing a horse for the Arc but opted to do things completely differently, said he had not really considered it as an option.
"Just A Way is usually much better after a long rest so I decided to leave him be after his last race in June, and I thought running him in the Foy would have been too risky as it was so close to the Arc," said Sugai, himself a former top jockey.
"Gold Ship also ran a super prep race (second behind Harp Star in the Sapporo Kinin on August 24) before coming here and I didn't want to separate them by sending one over earlier than the other as they have grown up together, they have been stabled beside each other since they were two and have undergone the same training regime."
Sugai, who said Just A Way's performance in Dubai convinced him he would stay the distance in the Arc, bridled when asked why he hadn't considered replacing Fukunaga with a European jockey as Ikee did by choosing two-time Arc winner Christophe Soumillon for Orfevre on both occasions.
"I am Japanese, the horse is Japanese and the owner is Japanese. I wanted a 100percent Japanese team," he said.
Matsuda, who is a wily, experienced campaigner and has won Japan's most prestigious turf race, the Japan Cup, twice with Admire Moon and Buena Vista in 2007 and 2011 respectively, only arrived in France on Monday but was happy with what he saw.
"As everything is going so well I am just waiting for the applause on Sunday," he said with a broad grin.