x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hiroyuki Uchida to bring his winning habit to Meydan

Japanese jockey is still hungry for winners.

The closest that Hiroyuki Uchida has come to significant success in the saddle outside of his native Japan was a brief flirtation with victory at the 2005 Dubai World Cup.

His mount, Adjudi Mitsuo, was positioned perfectly in third as the field came into the straight during the world's richest horse race. But they weakened on the dirt of Nad al Sheba racecourse, eventually finishing sixth behind Roses In May.

Japan's latest star jockey has not been back to Dubai since but returned this week to take part in the Meydan Masters jockey series, which starts tomorrow and was won for the first time last season by Richard Hills.

A lot has changed in those six years, not least that the dirt of Nad al Sheba has been replaced by the Tapeta of Meydan Racecourse.

What has not changed is Uchida's continued thirst for winners.

The fact that Adjudi Mitsuo did not even reach the frame was a bitter blow to a jockey for whom a visit to the winners' enclosure had become second nature when racing on the familiar tracks in the land of the rising sun.

Here the more international flavour and competitive nature of the races during Dubai World Cup night took Uchida by surprise. Like all top sportsmen, however, he soaked up the knowledge and returns a fiercer competitor.

"I studied everybody," Uchida said. "It was a great experience for me to participate in such a big race in which top-class horses come to run from all over the world.

"I found out that the dirt at Nad al Sheba was a bit different from that in Japan."

The 40-year-old has featured in several jockey challenges in the past few years, most notably in the Shergar Cup in England in 2009, when his team captain was Ahmed Ajtebi, the Emirati rider, and most recently in Hong Kong, where he finished fifth in the prestigious International Jockeys Championship in December.

"Even though it's overseas, it's the same; winning is everything and I rode with the same intent I always do," Uchida said of his Hong Kong experience. "The way the races themselves unfolded was no different from Japan, but seeing the way jockeys used to riding around the world found their positions, and used their whips, was something you had to be there riding with them to understand.

"There are many differences among each country, for example the style of the ride, the pace and rules of the race.

"I think it is essential to understand these differences. It was a learning experience."

Unlike jockeys such as Keiren Fallon, Steve Cauthen or Frankie Dettori, Uchida may not be the most gifted rider but what he may lack in intuition, he more than makes up with hard work and natural athleticism.

Japan's racing landscape is broken up into national and local racing, ruled by the Japan Racing Authority and the National Association of Racing (NAR) respectively.

Uchida is unique among Japan's best riders in that he spent a sizeable portion of his career learning his craft away from the spotlight on those national tracks.

He was the first man to ride 400 winners in a NAR season. Then he was the first to ride 500 winners in a NAR season, setting the bar at 524 in 2006 before he transferred to the big time.

All that learning, and all that experience eventually paid off in 2009 when he became only the second jockey in the past 20 years to displace Yutake Take's iron grip on the domestic championship.

"It was my aim to put an end to Mr Take's reign and I am very proud to have done so." said Uchida.

"Mr Take has been a leading figure in Japanese racing for many years, and I respect him because he has lived up to the big expectations of the racing fans."

Uchida's words are not only modest, but also reverential. His achievement in dethroning Take cannot be overestimated.

At the beginning of 2010, Uchida suffered a horrendous fall in a pile-up involving nine horses when partnering Lilac Punch.

He broke his arm and those of a voyeuristic bent can see the incident on YouTube.

The setback threatened to halt the vital momentum of his debut title, but Uchida's strength of character saw him seal a second championship at the end of last year.

If Uchida's determined outlook is frightening, there is a lighter side to him.

A self-confessed fan of Dettori, Uchida has taken the Italian's famed flying dismount to another level.

Uchida trained as a gymnast from an early age, and if the draw of the racetrack had not taken over he may well have been plying his trade on another type of horse altogether.

In 2008, after winning the Takarazuka Kinen, a Group 1 race in Japan, Uchida back-flipped out of his saddle.

The gauntlet has been thrown down; Dettori and the rest of the Meydan Masters had better pick it up.