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Sunday, May 12, 2002

Born to ride -- and to win

Staff writer

Veteran jockey Yukio Okabe is a legend in Japanese racing, perhaps best-known for his partnership with Triple Crown winner Symboli Rudolf. At 53, he is Japan's most senior rider, and has won awards in 27 of his 34 years as a jockey. As national racing's record-holder for number of rides, with more than 17,550, and for his 2,816 wins, he recently made a comeback following a starting-gate accident in which he suffered whiplash and the temporary loss of use of his right arm.

What particular things have contributed to you staying at the top for so long?

The only thing top about me now is my age (laughs). When you do the same things every day, you get used to it and it's easy to get sloppy. You have to be ever mindful of the basics.

What does being a professional mean to you?

I think being a pro means you can't do what everyone else does. A pro is paid for what he does and mustn't do anything that would be an embarrassment to others and, of course, himself. For us, more than other professions, the better we're doing the more we make. So, you can easily see how well you've done by what you've made.

Where do you think that professionalism comes from?

It comes naturally. As a jockey, even if I'm not riding I'll watch a race and be thinking that if that was me out there, I'd ride it like this. You're thinking all the time. When you're riding you're thinking about a rival, "How can I beat him?" or, "How can I bring my horse a little further up the field?" Taking action as you're thinking is what being a pro is about.

What sort of person earns your respect as a horseman?

I'd say it's a person who is always learning, always curious and always looking to improve. It's people who look at the whole picture and say, "This time didn't work out, so let's do this next time."

This is an extreme example, but say, after a race, some trainers or connections of the horse don't show up. I find that disappointing. I think it's the duty of the rider, whether you've won or lost, to relay how things went.

And it is the trainer's and owner's duty to listen, right?

Of course. And I think this type of communication happens a lot more now than it used to.

Earlier, was it more one-way?

Yes. A jockey had an awful lot of things he wanted to say but couldn't. The trainer of the stable you belonged to was almighty and there was no way you could voice any opinion that went against his. You had to be a total yes-man.

Are there still people like that?

There are still some stables that prefer things that way.

Does the degree to which a jockey can bring out the best in a horse vary?

There's all sorts of percentages. There are horses that are greatly affected by the jockey and others for whom the rider has little meaning. It's not something you can easily determine. You hear a lot that it's 70/30, the horse/jockey relationship, but sometimes it's 20/80. No two horses are the same.

When you are riding, is most of your communication with the horse a physical thing or is a large part of it mental?

You immediately get into what I guess you could call a rhythm with a horse. You definitely get a feeling and think, "Oh, we're on the same wavelength" or "We're not on the same wavelength."

Is being able to read the horse immediately what makes a top jockey?

Yes. Tuning in to the horse or getting the horse to tune in to you, making compromises where you have to and not compromising where you shouldn't. If you can do that, you'll see results. If you're worried about something or uneasy, the horse is going to be wary. If you're very relaxed, animals pick up on that immediately.

In a race, can you bring out in a horse what you've brought out in training?

There are horses where you can and others where you can't. There are horses who completely change in a race. That's what makes it difficult.

I have heard you do not intend to become a trainer. Is that so?

Yes, I don't want to be one. It's not my kind of work. I'm not suited to it.

Socializing becomes part of your work as a trainer. I'm much more comfortable with the horses. I'm not very good at getting on well with everyone. It's just too much.

If you could live your life over again, would you want to live it as a jockey?

Oh, sure . . . I'd like to be a female jockey (laughs). Then again, that would probably be a constant struggle. It'd be really hard in Japan today.

What were your most memorable rides?

I've ridden so many horses and have so many memories. Having been able to ride a great champion like Symboli Rudolf was a mind-expanding experience. Having met a horse like that gave my thinking whole new dimensions. And injuries too, they allow you to see a different world again.

From a horseman's standpoint, are there any benefits of Japan's training-center system?

The idea of the training centers was that if you didn't have everyone doing the same thing you'd risk partiality and unfairness. As for the benefits, well, I guess you could say the size of the facilities is a good thing.

When the stables were at the racetrack, you had a lot of communication with owners and the people at the stable. Now, there are lots of owners we never meet, whose faces we don't even know. When you win a race and at the winner's circle you see the owner's badge and think, "Oh, this must be the owner." You've really lost the kind of close communication we had earlier.

What about from the horse's standpoint?

In the United States, for example, the racing season is spent at the track. Off season is spent on the farm.

I think that's the best way of doing things. Taking a horse to some place it's never been in the morning, racing, then coming all the way back home takes a lot out of a horse. Everyone does the same so it works here. But I think the Americans and the Europeans have the system to look at.

Do you think the Japanese system is necessary for fairness?

No. Things worked well enough before. It's just what people up top are thinking. I don't agree. Officially they say it's a space problem. Well, I just don't know.

When you first raced overseas, what were some of the things that struck you?

As far as I could see, things were done with far more efficiency. And there seemed to be a great rapport with the horses and a great deal of communication with them.

How does Japan compare?

The gap has closed a great deal.

Are there any trends you see today that you do not welcome?

That would be in the difference in the systems between here and abroad. The biggest thing is about where horses stand. In Japan, there is still relatively little regard for the horse. The horses may be valued but they're the victims of the system in other ways. Overseas, the horse is never the victim; everything revolves around the horse.

In Japan, there is so much that could be improved if the regulations involving days off were revised. Here, after training on Sunday, horses are confined to their stalls for a day and a half. There's no plus there for the horse. It's only for the benefit of the workers.

Recently, Japanese horses have won some top-level races abroad. Do you think the level of racing here is on a par with foreign racing?

It still has a way to go. Japanese horses win abroad, but nobody is taking any holidays. They're working, because they want to win. To put it bluntly, there's a big difference between the people who say, "It's OK as long as I get my paycheck," and those who say, "I want to win overseas."

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