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The former ‘Jockey Baby’ with an international outlook is now an established rider at Woodbine where his compatriot Kazushi Kimura keeps on turning heads.
It was a provincial qualifying success on a pony called Lemon that took 13-year-old Daisuke Fukumoto from Japan’s far south to Tokyo racecourse on November 7, 2010. The young rider had reached the final of the ‘Jockey Babies’ series at the second year of trying and the respectable fourth place he achieved at the famous Fuchu course, on his mare a year older than himself, only added fuel to his ambitions.
“It was a nice experience, a quick moment; I was relieved at the finish,” he recalls, “but I remember I felt I wanted to come back as a real jockey.”
Fukumoto is now ‘real’ but he has not yet returned to compete at Japan’s flagship track. Instead, he is living out his boyhood dream as one of Japan’s small number of foreign-based jockeys, in his case at Woodbine in Canada, where he competes alongside his younger compatriot, the rising sensation Kazushi Kimura.
Needless to say, Fukumoto’s youthful plans did not pan out as he had envisaged. To make the grade as a JRA jockey and ride the Tokyo track against his ‘idol jockey’ Yutaka Take, he had to pass a two-exam test to make it into the JRA apprentice school: he failed, two years running.
A young Daisuke Fukumoto riding his pony Lemon at Tokyo racecourse.
“The first time I took the test, 150 people applied and then in the first exam 30 people passed and I passed that one but I couldn’t pass the next one. Almost got there,” he says by phone from Toronto, his tone rueful.
The local NAR circuit was an option at that point but Fukumoto had higher ambitions.
“I looked abroad at the racing in France and the US, and at that time we had Christophe Lemaire and Christophe Soumillon coming in on three-month licences in Japan and I watched them closely and became more interested in international racing,” he says.
The path he took led him to Canada’s premier circuit and recast him as one of a small, dispersed group, the unconventional others: jockeys who slipped through the cracks in Japan and tried to make their way on foreign shores.
He followed the likes of Joe Fujii, now working through the consequences of a life-altering spinal injury, who was one of the pioneers among Japanese riders forging careers overseas. Fujii made his name in Australia where another journeyman, Noriyuki Masuda, is currently based in Queensland.
Then there is Kozzi Asano, top ten in the premiership in New Zealand where his compatriot Taiki Yanagida tragically lost his life as a result of a race fall in August; and Macau at present has the former NAR champion apprentice Shogo Nakano, as well as Masa Tanaka who went through his apprenticeship in Queensland and rode in New Zealand and Korea.
He’s A Doozy lands the G3 Thompson Handicap (1600m) for Kozzi Asano. (Photo by NZ Racing Desk)
Joe Fujii celebrates a feature race win in Korea. (Photo by Getty Images)
Fukumoto made his solo relocation to Canada in 2015. For two years he studied English through the week and spent weekends hanging around at the track trying to catch a break. That came when trainer Reade Baker gave him a job as a groom. He debuted as an apprentice rider in 2017 and rode his first winner on October 13 that year, his 20th birthday.
“Fukumoto was raw when he got here and he would only get better,” says Eurico Rosa da Silva, the retired Woodbine champion who that year was in the process of securing the fifth of his seven Sovereign Awards as Canada’s outstanding jockey.
“I remember in the beginning he had a fall, and it was quite an immature fall, he put himself in a bad spot, and from that I think he had a big learning experience and some bad turned for good. I think that was a wake-up call and from that day he started to ride much better.
“He fell hard I remember: that is the time when the jockeys sometimes give up or don’t have a good reaction but he took it as a wake-up call.”
Fukumoto had not gone through a tough relocation far from his family just to quit then. He had four wins in his first season, then 36, 52 and a career high 69 in 2020.
In the meantime, another former ‘Jockey Baby’ followed his lead: Kimura took Woodbine by storm with 104 North American wins in his debut year in 2018 and 148 in his second campaign as he sealed not only back-to-back Sovereign Awards as Canada’s leading apprentice but also the US Eclipse Award.
Kazushi Kimura is the winner of the 2021 Woodbine Riding Title.
Kazushi becomes the first Japanese born jockey to win the award 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/3PHy5xgseH
— Woodbine Racetrack (@WoodbineTB) December 6, 2021
“From the beginning, you could see Kimura’s talent very clearly whereas Fukumoto was an ok jockey at first but has improved a lot in the time since he started,” Da Silva says.
“Fukumoto is very polite, a very hard worker and very easy to ride with, and that goes for both of them, they’re gentlemen. They’re both serious and very professional about what they’re doing.”
That extra polish Kimura had when he arrived is perhaps a result of their differing routes to Woodbine. The Hokkaido native learned to ride on his father’s pre-training farm, made it to the JRA’s apprentice jockey school and had the benefit of JRA training before his time at the school was cut short. He was considered by his JRA instructors to be a talented rider, the best in his class, but a lack of maturity expressed in behavioural issues prompted his early departure without graduating.
Fukumoto started riding at four years old and eventually competed in amateur races at local festivals, as well as on the pony circuit. He is from rural Kagoshima where his father was a groom at the NAR’s Saga racecourse, famous for its red brick grandstand and clockwise paddock.
“Yuga Kawada is from Saga,” he says with pride at the local roots connecting him to Japan’s current leading rider. “I met him once, in Dubai.”
Despite starting his professional career before Kimura, Fukumoto is now playing catch-up: he had 47 wins at Woodbine in 2022 to the dominant Kimura’s 152. But he and Kimura, as G1-winning jockeys still in their twenties, are both raising the profile of overseas-based Japanese riders above that of overlooked journeymen.
Fukumoto, 25, has already won two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown – in 2020 on Mighty Heart – including ‘Canada’s Kentucky Derby’ the Queen’s Plate, and a year later he won the G1 Woodbine Mile on Town Cruise. Meanwhile, 23-year-old Kimura’s big 2022 haul clinched his second Woodbine champion jockey title and also included the G1 EP Taylor Stakes in the autumn on the US raider Rougir.
Their emergence could be part of a natural development for Japanese jockeys: with the sport in Japan having matured into a world power this century, and with the criteria to make it on the JRA being so tough, it stands to reason that more riders might seek opportunity overseas, just as jockeys from other mature jurisdictions have long since been doing.
And Fukumoto, who has ridden at Santa Anita and Aqueduct, in Bahrain and in Turkey, harbours ambitions to ride at the top level in the US, the Middle-East and Europe.
“I try to be like Yutaka Take and that’s why I try to have a career outside of Japan,” he says. “Everybody knows him, even in Canada people know Yutaka. He also tried racing outside of Japan.”
Asian Racing Report first encountered Fukumoto in Dubai last March. He was standing alone at Meydan, observing the ebb and flow of horse connections and media types, barely moving from the same spot within the area on the back turn designated for morning trackwork watching.
Japanese racing writers stopped to chat with him; he talked with jockeys and trainers; introductions were made and handshakes offered and received.
He was wearing a black baseball cap with Aerolithe written flashily in pink but he said he had no connection to the NHK Mile Cup winner of 2017 and that the hat was a gift. At Meydan, among his country’s travelling horsemen, Fukumoto was on the fringe.
“I don’t have much connection with the Japanese people so it’s good to be around and spend time with them, and a lot of people have come and talked to me; connections are important,” he said at the time.
Fukumoto wins at Woodbine. (Photo Woodbine)
Jockey Daisuke Fukumoto has global ambitions. (Photo Woodbine)
When speaking again several months later, he says that he hopes to ride in Dubai in the early part of 2023, and that his desire to build an international profile is firm.
“So far, I’m riding here (Woodbine) and I’m making money but I want to win more big races,” he says. “For me right now, I just need to keep winning races so my numbers go up; make money, of course, but more important is to ride big winners and then ride in Dubai, in the US and in Europe. I want to focus outside.”
But, for all that, he also still holds close the ambition of that 13-year-old riding his coloured mare up the Tokyo straight.
“Before, there wasn’t much chance to go back to Japan but now I’m thinking I hope something maybe temporary or short term might be possible in the future,” he says.
“I love horse racing in Japan. If I could go back home to race, it would be great.”
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