Fumio Matoba: the ‘Emperor’ is still dancing

Japan’s NAR legend reached his 67th birthday recently and on October 16 it will be exactly 50 years since his NAR career began at Oi racecourse.

NAR legend Fumio Matoba spoke with Asian Racing Report at Oi Racecourse. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


It’s another Twinkle Night at Tokyo City Keiba (TCK) and horses are milling beneath the bright floodlights around the colourful Oi paddock. The crowd is hushed, there are no raised voices: even on Japan’s ‘blue collar’ NAR (National Association of Racing) circuit the fans’ knowledge of the sport engenders respect for the process as well as the participants.

Jockeys wait side-by-side in a ceremonial row, as is the way here, and then at once the line breaks. Some jog, some stride with purpose towards their mounts, and the rider in the scarlet silks with scattered white stars walks steadily to the nearest horse. He passes by the bay’s head to reach the near-side where he takes hold of the saddle-top, bends his left leg at the knee and is lifted lightly into the plate.

Yet there is something in this man’s gait, in the rise to the horse’s back and in the way he sits; a posture suggesting this athlete’s suppleness has diminished. He and his mount pass close to the rail; the rider’s spine is hunched a little forward through the curve of his neck; his head is dipped but his face is exposed.

That face: ruddy, blotched, lined and marked with contours and crevices, like a map charting every grimace of defeat, every smile in victory, and each grain of sharp sand kicked back from the hooves of innumerable rivals; weathered from half a century of racing more than 43,300 times around the NAR’s dirt tracks.

Fumio Matoba is 67 years old, Japan’s oldest active jockey, the one with more wins than any other in his nation’s history. He is the ‘Emperor of Oi.’


Each NAR jockey is designated their own silks. Matoba’s colours are iconic. They can be seen at Oi on walls, on merchandise, and in a shrine-like display in one of the food halls: dressed on a mannequin encased in glass, beside a signed picture, and a poster congratulating the legend for another rare achievement.

Trackside, the crowd bubbles when the rider bumps and drives a horse down the finishing straight in that famous ‘Matoba Dance’. It is a quirky wonder of the racing world, the old man’s rigid upper body, more upright than his younger rivals, bouncing up and down, arms thrusting.

It is mid-card and Matoba has a break between rides. A TCK official escorts him into what looks and feels like a vacant secondary school classroom. But the room, with its plain walls, furnished – if it can be called such – with desks and chairs, is a few floors up in the NAR’s bland administrative block, located beyond the Oi saddling yard, overlooking the turn out of the home straight.

He is dressed in his famous silks, and there is an incongruity to that attire in this setting. He offers a shallow bow, and, while his face is deadpan, in his eyes there is iron.

The steely gaze of an enduring NAR legend. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

“Well, my body turned stiff, so when I ride it looks like the Matoba Dance,” he says when Asian Racing Report asks about the evolution of his riding style, via Chinese language editor and Japanese speaker Bobby Leung.

“But just look at when I was riding on Concert Boy, it was very fluent,” he adds, harking back to the horse he rode to win the 1997 Teio Sho.

He says he was influenced by two NAR legends: “There is no one like Mr. Akama,” he asserts, “and Mr. Takemi would put pressure on the horse when riding with his body, and I tried to imitate that, using my body and legs to push.”

Mr. Akama is the great jockey-turned-trainer Kiyomatsu Akama; Mr. Takemi is Takemi Sasaki, the man who rode an incredible 7,151 winners on the NAR, a record not even Matoba thought could be bettered. But Matoba it was who on August 12, 2018, at age 62, went one better with win number 7,152. His tally has since reached more than 7,400.

“There was a time when I thought I was going to stop chasing Mr. Takemi’s record, that I could not reach it, but I was finally able to go past it. It was rewarding,” he says with plain understatement. 

At close quarters there is no mistaking that this is a man approaching three-score and ten years. His face is a giveaway, for sure, but so too is his demeanour with its respectful formality and perhaps a hint of mild testiness. He sits as upright in the chair as he can, with that same slightly forward lean he has on horseback. His hands are clasped together between his legs, and there is a sense that his mind is halfway occupied with thoughts of his upcoming rides.

Fumio Matoba in the mounting yard at Oi. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Matoba rides five days a week. He enters lockdown on a Sunday evening and leaves after the last race on a Friday afternoon, and he has done this for decades. It is an unusual existence and it begs the question: Does his devoted wife ever ask him when he will retire?

“She watches the racing live and takes video of my rides,” he says. “You can retire at any time, so my wife said it’s something she’ll leave to me to decide.” 

One senses that if not for the nature of mortality, he would take the Oi kickback forever and a day. His incredible career has been shaped in part by necessity and in part by the desire to live his boyhood ambition.

He says that he needed to support his wife and children and so he renewed his commitment to his career in his mid-20s in order to provide the financial support his family needed. The five-days a week schedule helped him stay disciplined: 7:30pm to bed, 3:30am up to ride trackwork.

“Because I don’t have other things to do, I am able to focus and do only this kind of work,” he says. And I like being a jockey, I wanted to become a jockey when I was small, so this is probably about pursuing the dream and being able to ride for a long time.

“If I didn’t like this life, I don’t think I would have been able to ride for so long; I would not have been able to ride until this age.”

Next week he will make the journey back to where his dream was first kindled: Saga Racecourse. He will ride in the annual Fumio Matoba Challenge Cup, which puts Matoba against nine young jockeys. The same card also stages the Fumio Matoba Legend Cup.

Fumio Matoba is honoured at Tokyo City Keiba. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

“A long time ago, Saga racing was inside the city of Saga,” he reflects. “It was next to my home city and I went there often when I was a child, and became passionate about becoming a jockey at Saga, like my elder brother. But my brother told me, ‘If you want to become a jockey then go elsewhere.’

“It turned out that Tokyo was the correct choice. But before I came to Tokyo, I was able to ride with my brother at Saga.”

Tokyo was a long way from his home in Japan’s far southwest, on the island of Kyushu, where Matoba had grown up around the horses used in the family’s furniture-transportation business. He still speaks with the dialect of that area located along the Chikugo River.

“The first time I went to Tokyo to experience Oi racing was when I was still at school, in Form Two,” he recalls. “Even my parents were like, isn’t Oi good?”

He could not have envisaged during that childhood visit that Oi was to become central to his life. He moved there in 1971 and was apprenticed to Yoshihisa Kogure, a trainer renowned as a mentor to successful jockeys.

He debuted at Oi in October 1973, and on November 5 of that year he had his first winner. His achievements are many; leading rider, big-race wins, and a prestigious Yellow Ribbon Medal award, presented to those in Japanese society who ‘through their diligence and perseverance have become public role models’, and that is to list just a few. He has ridden some good NAR horses in his time, too, including Concert Boy.   

A close up of Fumio Matoba's iconic red silks with the white stars on the tribute wall at Oi Racecourse. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Tribute to Oi jockeys past and present. Unlike in the JRA, NAR jockeys wear their own silks, not those of owners. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

“Concert Boy was strong, he had guts,” Matoba says. “I was lucky to partner with many good horses, like Bonneville Record and Gold Head, also Blue Family.

“Horses in Japan back then were not up to the level they are these days. Breeders have spent so much money, horses in Japan have become better and right now it’s top level.” 

He goes on to mention Hashiri Shogun, a horse he partnered for Akama to run second in the G3 All Comers on the JRA and then 16th in the G1 Japan Cup, and the same trainer’s George Monarch, second and 15th in those races, as well as the Morio Misaka-trained Galdan, second and 13th in the same two contests.

His opportunities to ride the JRA have been limited over the years and the latest – perhaps the last – of his four winners on the ‘big show’ came in March 2004, atop Silk Impact at Nakayama. The last time he rode on the more prestigious central government administered circuit was in September 2019 when he was invited to participate in the World All Star Jockeys contest for the second time.

“It’s fun to ride in the JRA, I am able to ride freely,” he says. “I like to feel the JRA atmosphere, but I was only able to win in Nakayama.”

Fumio Matoba at the 2019 World All Star Jockeys in Sapporo. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Is there a ruefulness to his words? He shifts position and rubs his hands together slowly; his brow furrows as he considers if he ever had ambitions to make the switch to the JRA.

“I haven’t thought about it,” he says, his hands pressing together. “Katsumi Ando did it first (the move across from the NAR), then (Hiroyuki) Uchida and (Yasunari) Iwata. I was working with Uchida also, he was born in the city (Kurume City) beside my home city (Okawa City), he said he wanted to become a jockey. He was able to win so many races and has won many in the JRA, so it’s good to see this.”

Matoba understands what it takes to do what Uchida has done; the move from NAR – from faraway Saga – to elite JRA jockey is no easy feat and the days, weeks, months, and years riding the NAR ovals, with that sharp sand flying in the face, is a tough existence.

He knows his own career cannot continue for too much longer, but Matoba relishes what he does; every groove in his visage speaks to it.

“It was all about living my dream,” he says, and, before rising from his seat to offer a departing bow, he adds, “I am still holding onto my dream.”




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing