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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
Woodbine’s Japanese champion has mixed with legends at Santa Anita this winter and is teaming up with an unusual Japanese raider as he looks to enhance his rising profile across North America.
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.
Day 2 of training for Mandarin Hero @santaanitapark. 🇯🇵 pic.twitter.com/omE4yzt1QD
— TVG (@TVG) April 2, 2023
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.
Top Jock | 🏆
Congratulations to Kazushi Kimura on capturing the 2022 @WoodbineTB Leading Jockey title! This is the second consecutive title for Kimura.
📷 | Michael Burns pic.twitter.com/Iucz1hsGzo
— Woodbine Communications (@WoodbineComms) December 5, 2022
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.
“When I got here, for sure, it’s not easy to win and not easy to get the mounts, but I got a good opportunity to win a few stakes races, and got good opportunities from good trainers, and it has been great experience to ride with these big riders, I’m so happy for that,” he says.
Mandarin Hero might even take him to Churchill Downs if he can make what should in theory be a big step up in grade in the Santa Anita Derby. The Shanghai Bobby colt has raced five times, all on the Oí dirt, for four straight wins and then a last-start second over 1800 metres behind Hero Call. That horse offers a hint of hope for Mandarin Hero in what will be a field of nine, as he had finished fourth in a Listed race at Kawasaki the time before, behind another colt with Kentucky Derby ambitions, the easy G2 UAE Derby winner Derma Sotogake.
Kimura has ridden Mandarin Hero in trackwork this week but the intentionally sedate nature of the exercise means he still is unsure as to the level of talent his mount possesses.
“I wanted to check out how quick he is and get an idea what his maximum speed might be, but travelling from Japan they already did the fast training before he came, so they wanted an easy breeze, just to stretch out,” he says.
“First time on the track, he’s looking around, and he has only worked solo without company, so that means it’s not easy to know what he’s got. But after travelling from Japan it’s important to not do too much before the race and tire him out.”
Derma Sotogake wins the UAE Derby at Meydan. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)
One thing is certain, a Grade 1 at left-handed Santa Anita will be a very different proposition to NAR competition at right-handed Oí.
“The racing style is going to be new for the horse,” he says. “The pace is completely different: everybody here wants to go boom! And the sand is much deeper at Oí than Santa Anita. At Oí, every race is a half-mile in 51 or 50 seconds, so it’s a more deep track, and the horses have to work hard in the final straight because it’s deep.
“At Santa Anita, especially the big races, we go really fast the first half-mile, sometimes we’ll be 45 (seconds), so it will be interesting to see if he can stay close with the company. I hope he can improve for being here at Santa Anita.”
As for Kimura himself, he is in no doubt that his winter in California has brought improvement and given him new connections, which he hopes will open more opportunities throughout the year ahead. That is not to say he is ready to move away from Woodbine, though.
“The Woodbine season opening is on 22 April, so I’ll be back then,” he says. “But I will be bouncing around and if I can join Del Mar for a couple of days for their stakes races, I might do that too. I like to ride at Woodbine and this year, from there, I’ll bounce around between the States and Canada, like, for example, if I ever get the chance to ride at the Breeders’ Cup and the Derby, I would love to do that.
“I love more challenges, but I’m still only 23 and I’m not going to suddenly disappear from Canada.”
Kazushi Kimura has aspirations to compete regularly at major events like the Breeders' Cup World Championships. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
He draws a comparison with Joao Moreira’s attempt to relocate to Japan from Hong Kong, which fell through when the Brazilian champion was unable to pass a mandatory JRA exam to gain a full-time licence there. Kimura’s point is that he knows he has a base at Woodbine that for now provides the right platform and he is not ready to risk that yet, but it raises the question of whether he would want to return fulltime to Japan in the future.
“I’d say I’m going to stay in North America and just keep riding here because I like the North American style,” he says. “Sometimes I think there’s not enough racing in Japan, just the two days on the JRA each week, and I love riding. I would love to go and ride in Japan on a short licence maybe but I’m not going to get licensed for a long period there.”
North America is proving to be a land of opportunity for Kimura and perhaps it will be for Mandarin Hero too, however unlikely the latter outcome might seem.
“It’s going to be history if it works out,” Kimura chuckles. “I love it.”
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