When a legend of the New Zealand riding ranks tells you he has seen a ride from a four-kilogram claiming apprentice that would not be bettered by the best in the business, then it pays to take notice.
That was the acknowledgement that Hall Of Fame jockey-turned trainer Lance O’Sullivan made regarding his apprentice Yuto Kumagai after the native Japanese rider guided the Wayne Carter-trained Motuman to victory in a rating 65 2100m contest at Tauranga on Sunday.
Kumagai, who is in his first full season of riding after arriving in New Zealand four years ago with a dream of making it as a jockey, was having just his 15th raceday start and racked up career win number two with a gem of a ride.
Starting from the extreme outside barrier in the 14-horse field, Kumagai dropped Motuman to the rear against the rails for the first half of the race, where the pair were well adrift of the leaders but relaxed and conserving energy.
Kumagai elected to follow the rail home, moving into contention with 300m to run before angling for an inside run inside the final 100m, keeping his mount balanced while not going around another runner.
It was the third win in a 39-start career for Motuman, with O’Sullivan of the opinion his apprentice and the horse were made for each other.
“To me it looks like the horse just loves Yuto,” he said.
“I don’t really know the horse at all, but they are a happy combination and that ride was as good as you would see from an Opie Bosson, a Shane Dye or a James McDonald.
“He never left the fence or went around a horse and timed his challenge to a nicety, so it was a superb effort.”
O’Sullivan is delighted for Kumagai, who came to the stable fresh off the plane from Japan with no previous riding experience except for some work in the showjumping field.
“It’s fair to say that Yuto is not a natural and has had to work hard for every opportunity he has received,” O’Sullivan said.
“When he came to us, he had barely sat on a horse and we had to start from step one with him.
“Not only is he a hard worker but he is one of the nicest people you could meet. He recognises his shortcomings with his riding and he is prepared to leave no stone unturned to get better at what he does.
“He doesn’t have natural ability in the saddle and I think I see a bit of myself in him at the same stage as I didn’t have that natural ability either and had to work bloody hard to get to the level I did.
“We also have Taiki Yanagida with us, who is also Japanese, and they are cut from the same cloth in that they are both outstanding people.
“Their work ethic is superb. They never complain and they are the first to work and the last to leave.”
O’Sullivan believes the timing of the victory could not be better for Kumagai as he gets ready for a busy winter period later in the year.
“The win has come at a good time for Yuto as it was not long ago that he was having a bit of an internal crisis with his riding,” he said.
“He had been lacking some confidence and was questioning where he was going, which is a stage that we all go through.
“We had told him that he would start to get more rides during the winter, where his claim is a big bonus and that we would work to get him ready for that.
“He is also very lucky, in fact all the apprentices are, that he has someone like Noel Harris (Northern riding master) to work with on his riding.
“Noel is just magical with the young riders and does a fantastic job and he has spent time with Yuto and I think it is paying off.”
While O’Sullivan was pleased to see his apprentice receive a just reward, overall, he is concerned with the standard of riding in New Zealand that be believes is at an all-time low.
“Right now, I don’t think it has been worse for the industry as a whole,” he said.
“If you took out the top half dozen senior riders, we are in pretty poor shape.
“Some of the riding you see is very very bad and things like tactical appreciation, judgement of pace and positioning in a field can be quite woeful.
“We are probably lucky to have kids like Yuto, Taiki and others coming in from overseas to bolster our apprentice ranks as they are hard workers and want to put in the time and effort with their riding to make it later in their careers.
“You don’t tend to see that with our local apprentices, who often think once they have ridden trackwork in the morning their day is done.
“Taiki has worked a proper apprenticeship and when he comes out of his time, which I think is next week, he will be well suited as a senior jockey in our ranks.
“It hasn’t helped that some of our very best riders are now plying their trade overseas, but that is just natural market forces and I wish them all the best.
“To be fair if James McDonald was still in New Zealand, he would be comfortably riding 300 winners a season as he is just that good.
“The reality is also that our Japanese apprentices wouldn’t get a go back in their home country as the standard there is so unbelievably high, that they have to head away from home if they want a career in the saddle.”
Kumagai and Yanagida are one of a number of Japanese riders who are making a positive impression on the New Zealand racing scene, with apprentice jockeys Kozzi Asano and Masa Hashizume also bolstering the riding ranks.