When Kazushi Kimura was offered the opportunity to ride at Santa Anita this winter, he didn’t have to be persuaded: not even the daunting line-up of rival jockeys assembling in California was going to put him off, in fact, it was a massive draw.
“I already knew Frankie (Dettori) was going to be here, Johnny (Velazquez), Mike Smith, Joe Bravo, so many good riders, and Hall of Fame riders, so if I was going to be doing good or no good, 100 percent it was going to be the right experience,” Woodbine’s two-time champion tells Asian Racing Report.
He could also have mentioned the current meet’s leading jockey Juan Hernandez, as well as Flavien Prat and Ramon Vazquez; then thrown in the likes of Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux and past Italian champion Umberto Rispoli, who earned his international stripes in Hong Kong and Japan. To ride at Santa Anita these past few months has been to keep tough company.
But after back-to-back champion titles at Woodbine in the past two years – he was 30 wins clear of his nearest rival in 2022 – the talented young Japanese rider had his mind fixed on new challenges. He has found a unique one in an unexpected quarter: the Japanese galloper Mandarin Hero, his mount in the G1 Santa Anita Derby and possibly the G1 Kentucky Derby itself.
Mandarin Hero is not your usual Japanese horse abroad. The Terunobu Fujita-trained colt is an outlier, in that he is not one of the usual JRA (Japan Racing Association) gallopers, seen so prominently in G1 races around the world: instead, he hails from the second tier NAR (National Association of Racing) local government circuit, albeit from the association’s showcase track, at Oí a.k.a. Tokyo City Keiba.
“You know that NAR and JRA are different associations,” Kimura emphasises, pressing the point just to make sure. It is put to him that it would be an incredible turn-up for an NAR horse to win a Santa Anita Derby.
“I know, right?” he says, but adds with an eager tone, “So, you see, I’m really interested to find out how good he is.”
That last statement could apply to himself. Like Mandarin Hero, Kimura is an outlier in Japanese racing terms and one with a bit of a point to prove, perhaps. He is the kid that turned away from the domestic system and left the JRA jockey school despite being top of his class; relocated to Toronto in his teens; swept through his apprentice days at Woodbine with two Sovereign Awards and an Eclipse Award, and is now the track’s standout rider, all by age 23.
It was 2018 when Kimura – his chance of graduating to Japan’s elite tier gone – landed in Canada and kicked off his apprenticeship. He was raised in Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan’s large islands, where his father, “just a normal farmer,” took in young horses to pre-train for the track and prepared some pinhooks for the sales.
“I was riding horses from four or five years, starting with ponies and then riding quarter horses and jumping horses,” he recalls. “After that I went to the JRA school.”
The strict rules and constraints Kimura had to abide by at the apprentice school did not sit well with him. JRA officials remember him as the most talented rider in his year group but someone that was not comfortable with the imposed boundaries.
“I was just still a kid and they had so many small rules, they were really strict and I wasn’t ready for that,” he says, noting that he understands that the school has become a little more flexible since he left. “My year, we couldn’t have our phones, and there was never time to go home, and my home is Hokkaido, which is a different island, so it was quite tough for me at that age.
“Every month we had an exam for riding skill and I never lost, I was always first place,” he continues, but without hesitation he flows naturally into playing down that achievement. “That school does not have many people and each year was a different quality of students: my year was just so-so, and that to me is why it was easier for me.”
It should be noted that one of his classmates from the school is Atsuya Nishimura, currently eighth in the JRA standings after finishing 14th last year. But Kimura has taken his jockey school experience and turned it to his gain. His decision to leave opened a wide new vista, which he is keen to make the most of.
His career so far has brought 663 career wins from 3,900 rides; last year he ranked 25th in North America by wins and 26th by earnings. He also picked up a Grade 1 win for outside connections, when big-hitting trainer Chad Brown sent the Peter Brant and Michael Tabor-owned Rougir north of the border to snag the E P Taylor Stakes.
A winter at Santa Anita was the next step to take. It has been tough, as he expected, but rewarding, as he had hoped. He won the G3 La Canada Stakes in January and bagged a big one, the G1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile aboard Gold Phoenix on March 5, before enduring a 35-ride winless streak he hopes to break this week. He has a respectable 10 wins, placing him 16th in the winter standings, but has the tenth highest earnings.