INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS

Seina Imamura’s timely rise shows no sign of stalling

Japan’s latest female sensation riding alongside Hollie Doyle could be a potent promotional tool for the JRA.

Seina Imamura is making waves in Japan. The JRA’s apprentice find of the season has ridden at least one winner on the JRA circuit for eight weekends straight and is closing in on a significant milestone: Nanako Fujita’s all-time Japanese record of 43 wins for a female jockey in a single season.

Imamura has 39 on the board after striking a double at Chukyo on Sunday with Two Tails and Hagino Maetel. Those victories have fed Japanese racing fans’ deep fascination in the rider who is not only building on the platform of Fujita’s achievements back in 2019 but is also taking it up a notch.  

Like ‘Nanako’ before her, ‘Seina’ and her precocious abilities have given the JRA a powerful marketing weapon – subliminally, rather than via any official ‘Seina’ push – as it continues its Umajo campaign of attracting more women to the racecourse.

And that mix of official marketing and organic fandom could be about to gain a potent force with news late last week that classic-winning rider Hollie Doyle is on the list of foreign jockeys the JRA has offered a licence to for the upcoming autumn season.

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Hollie Doyle wins the Nassau Stakes on Nashwa at Goodwood. (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

While Doyle is forging into new ground in Europe as a classic-winning female running second in the British championship, she is nonetheless the latest in a line of women jockeys in Britain stretching back more than 40 years, via pathfinders Hayley Turner, Lisa Jones, Alex Greaves, Emma O’Gorman, Gay Kelleway and many others.

In contrast, Imamura is only the tenth Japanese woman licensed as a JRA jockey: the first came in 1996 when Junko Hosoe, Maki Tamura and Yukiko Makihara were licensed; one year later came Mayuko Itakura and Junko Oshida, and then in 2000 Rena Nishihara. Of those, Makihara had the most wins, with 34, as all struggled to make headway.

The new wave began with Fujita in 2016 and she is approaching 150 career wins; last year Manami Nagashima and Naho Furukawa began their apprenticeships; this year Imamura has emerged and her rapid rise is timely given Fujita’s dipping form.

Seina Imamura aboard Lux Dion at Hanshin. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

While the previous golden girl of the JRA is struggling, Japanese racing is booming. Pari-mutuel turnover on JRA racing was about US$21.4 billion in 2021, and prize money per race day averaged out at US$2.8million. Attendances climbed to an eight-year high in 2018 of 6.2 million for the year, until they fell off a cliff in 2020 due to Covid and its attendant shut-outs that kept the fans at home.

Of greater significance is the rise in female racegoers, which correlates with the JRA’s Umajo marketing strategy. In 2011, women made up 13.5 percent of Japan’s racegoers (823,003) but by 2018 that figure was 17.4 percent (1,084,515) and the JRA is fully committed to marketing racing as a safe, exciting and engaging experience for women.

Yet the female attendance plateaued in 2019, and 2020 and 2021 were write-offs due to Covid; at the same time, Fujita ‘s record-setting 2019 was followed by a solid 35 wins in 2020, but dropped to 14 in 2021 and this season she has only five wins so far.

The 18-year-old Imamura is the fresh-faced new hope. The daughter of former JRA jockey Yasunari Imamura, she was raised around horses and has been well-schooled at the JRA apprentice facility, not only in developing an effective, neat, balanced crouch and tidy drive, but also in how to present positively to the media.

In a past interview for the JRA, she referenced respected JRA jockeys when pinpointing the traits that she would like to have: ‘humble like Hideaki Miyuki,’ she said, ‘inquisitive about the horse like Yuichi Fukunaga,’ and ‘respected’ and ‘supported’ like Yutaka Take.

She also delivered the charming soundbite that her personal motto is ‘Human and horse as one.’ Such statements only endear her to the fans and media and build her profile as a young, successful woman in the JRA’s welcoming new world.

Seina Imamura scores on Toho Dias at Hanshin in June 2022. (Photo by Shuhei Okada).

Imamura seems certain to surpass Fujita’s record, and, if she can maintain her progression and the impetus she has already built in a short space of time – she debuted on March 5 and had her first Group race win by July 3 – she might well succeed where every other female in the JRA has failed and put together good numbers across several seasons.  

Once she has ridden out her claim, she will be aided by a two-kilogram allowance in certain races, afforded to all women riders in the JRA. That is an aid that Doyle will have available to her this autumn but given that she is currently Britain’s second-best rider based on numbers, that looks like being an advantage rather than a leveller and one she should not need.

Doyle’s elite ability in the saddle has long since been proven and she won over the Hong Kong fans the past two winters when flying in just for the one-off International Jockeys Championship at Happy Valley: she was the darling of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s marketing team, too, but being handed a short-term JRA licence is a bigger deal altogether.

The attention she received in Hong Kong will likely be small-fry in comparison to Japan, where the clamour for any top jockey, the time and attention, from autograph hunters to photo calls, to crass questions from the media about her favourite fashion, will not stop. More so for her: girls are en vogue and the JRA is working it to maintain the trend.

While the JRA does not focus its official marketing campaigns on specific jockeys, with Doyle and Imamura both likely to be on the scene this autumn, it will nonetheless be banking on a potent charge of ‘girl power’ to keep the Umajo spirit going.  

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