LONGINES IJC gives a world window to Japan’s son who keeps on rising

It is not uncommon for horseracing’s greats to come from humble beginnings and Japan is no exception. Keita Tosaki has risen from his origins in a predominantly agricultural community, via the National Association of Racing’s blue collar circuit, to become a three-time champion jockey in the elite JRA (Japan Racing Association).

Yutaka Take might be the most well-known Japanese jockey in the world, but for the third consecutive year, it is Tosaki, 37, who will represent Japan at the HK$800,000 LONGINES International Jockeys Championship, which takes place at Happy Valley Racecourse on Wednesday, 6 December.

Growing up in the rural town of Mibu in Tochigi Prefecture, 90km north of Tokyo, a young Tosaki joined his junior high school’s baseball team and enjoyed playing sports.

“I didn’t know anything about racing until my neighbours started telling me that I should become a jockey because of my size. So I started watching it on TV and liked it. I have always liked to be active, so I thought being a jockey could be a great job,” he said.

Starting out, Tosaki didn’t know anything about the JRA, so he enrolled in the National Association of Racing’s (NAR) Education Centre, conveniently located an hour from his hometown, to train to be a jockey. He received his jockey’s license in 1998 and joined Ohi Racecourse’s very competitive jockey colony.

On 12 April, 1998, his first ride was also chalked up as his first win, a sign of things to come. Over the next 10 years, he steadily rose through the ranks of the NAR’s most robust racing circuit, ending 2009 as the NAR’s leading jockey in Japan with well over a billion yen in earnings.

“It felt amazing to have realised my dream of becoming a top jockey, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of friends, family, and many great trainers and kind owners,” Tosaki said.

Keita Tosaki receives his prize for third place at last year’s LONGINES International Jockeys Championship, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club

From 2009 to 2012 he was the NAR’s leading jockey by number of wins and earnings, also receiving the NAR’s Most Valuable Jockey award in 2011.

After reaching the top of the NAR, Tosaki moved his sights to the more esteemed JRA. He had ridden his first race in the JRA in 2005 and clocked his first win in 2007. He rode his first JRA Graded winner in 2010 and won his first JRA G1 aboard Hori Stable’s Real Impact (JPN) in the 2011 Yasuda Kinen. With those triumphs on his record, he was ready to make the jump full-time, but like his mentor Hiroyuki Uchida before him, he had to pass the notoriously difficult JRA Jockey Exam first.

“Life in the NAR was very busy, riding every day. I really like riding so I did enjoy it but it left little time for anything else,” he said.

Tosaki had first taken the test in 2005 and failed the written portion of the examination, the hardest part of the process. “I didn’t expect the test to be as hard as it was so I didn’t study as much as I should have,” he admitted. But that Yasuda Kinen victory spurred him to try again.

“Winning the Yasuda Kinen with Real Impact changed my opinion on trying the test again. I had felt like I didn’t have time to study while riding in the NAR. But afterwards, I really wanted to try again. So I studied every day. I rode every day, and I studied every day,” he said.

Tosaki failed again. But this time he didn’t let it get him down. In 2012, the third time proved the charm. He passed the first part (written) and the second part (practical).

“The test had changed a lot in five years, but I was able to walk away from it knowing exactly what I needed to study for the next year,” he said. “The 2012 test was very similar to the 2011 test, so I was fully prepared that time.”

He became a fully licensed JRA Jockey on 1 March, 2013, closing his career in the NAR with 1,920 wins from 13,460 rides.

“I have no words to describe how amazing it felt to pass the test. I am not sure I’ve ever been that happy,” Tosaki said.

His first season as a JRA jockey had him break the 100-win barrier, a feat accomplished by only the best jockeys and one he has managed every year since.

“I felt, with my experience in the NAR, I should be able to win 100 races a year. So I tried my best and with the support of those around me I was able to do it,” he said.

By the end of his second season, he was the JRA’s leading jockey with 146 JRA wins.

“A jockey’s goal is to be the best, and that is what I wanted to be. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my friends in the NAR who still root for me to this day, and the many supportive trainers and owners. I was very happy to be able to perform so well for them,” Tosaki said.

He would repeat his leading rider feat in 2015 with 130 JRA wins and in 2016 with 187 JRA wins. He also became the first leading jockey in JRA history to never have been suspended or penalised in any way during a full season of riding. These factors have led to him being named the JRA’s Most Valuable Jockey for the past three years running, and he picked up two other special awards in 2016 for his model behavior and skill on and off the track.

This week will mark Tosaki’s third trip to Hong Kong for the LONGINES International Jockeys Championship, an event he finished third in last year after capturing his first win outside of Japan, having filled the same final position in 2015.

“After a few trips here I’ve got to know Happy Valley better and can relax a bit more, so I look forward to using what I have learned in this year’s challenge. I was lucky to get some good horses as well, so I hope I can win! I really enjoy international events like this and the Japan Cup. Getting to meet and talk to so many great jockeys from around the world, I want to learn from them so I can become a better jockey.”

After accomplishing so much in his nearly 20-year career, the sky still seems to be the limit for the talented jockey. And he has plenty of ambitions still to fulfil.

“There are so many races I still want to win, like the Japanese Derby and many other international G1 races,” he said.