Yutaka Take: the human face of Japan’s racing revolution
David Morgan profiles Yutaka Take, the man who has been a constant through the last 40 years of Japanese racing and whose fame transcends the sport in his country.
David Morgan profiles Yutaka Take, the man who has been a constant through the last 40 years of Japanese racing and whose fame transcends the sport in his country.
Yutaka Take steps from a doorway into the brightness of the sunlit walkway at the back of the grand viewing stand that looks out across the Japan Racing Association’s (JRA) Ritto training tracks. He says little, and speaks softly: a quiet greeting with the JRA official acting as liaison, a nod of confirmation to meet with us at a time and place, a word of thanks, and another nod.
His bearing is cool, straight, and confident in the manner of a man who has nothing to prove; a touch reserved, cautious perhaps, yet he smiles politely and there is warmth in his countenance.
His attire is inconspicuous, a black lightweight zip-up jacket, dark blue jeans, riding gloves tucked into a back pocket, black boots with what could be little silver buckles, and on his head a silver-grey baseball cap. He shakes hands, dips another nodded bow, and walks away: down the steps, across the sand yard towards the trainers’ stand.
There walks the greatest jockey Japan has ever produced, the face of Japanese horse racing at home and abroad, off to do what to him has been the everyday work at the core of his world since the 1980s.
“It is still very enjoyable for me,” he tells Asian Racing Report later. “It has been this way for a long time: weekdays I will ride track work here at Ritto; weekends I will ride in races. It has been like this for 36 years and I enjoy it very much.”
That is how long Take has been in the public eye. From his record-breaking rookie season as the son of esteemed rider Kunihiko Take, he has scaled the sport’s loftiest peaks of achievement, set benchmarks and broken boundaries, and, at 54, he is still here, the sport’s great hero in Japan still doing what he dreamed of as a boy: riding horses and winning races.
But Take’s star burned so brightly that his fame moved beyond horse racing’s limited orbit and crossed into Japan’s popular culture long ago.
“Here in Japan, you can compare him to like Messi in soccer or Michael Jordan in basketball,” says Italian jockey Mirco Demuro as he talks alongside his friend and former jockey Joe Fujii in the Ritto sunshine that same morning.
Demuro offers context, relating how his own fame as a top jockey in Japan means he will quite often be spotted by fans and asked for an autograph or a selfie.
“It’s the people that support us and make us feel good, I understand why the people want this, with a superstar like him especially, but we’ve been friends a long time, I’ve known him 25 years and even I can’t imagine really what it’s like for Yutaka when he goes out,” he says, and tells of a time he was travelling with Take to attend a party with an owner.
“We stopped at the service area on the roadside and I said to him, ‘Can I just get an ice cream?’ and he said yes, so we walked out and I was eating an ice cream, and then people saw him and they came over and said ‘Ah, Yutaka-san can I take a picture?’
“He was good with this. But then a bus stopped and the whole bus, they all recognised him,” Demuro continues, with a chuckle, “and everyone got off and asked for his picture, and I said ‘Sorry, sorry,’ and I dropped my ice cream and we had to run away because we didn’t have that much time.”
He’s really that famous?
“Yes, he is that big,” confirms champion trainer Mitsu Nakauchida when contacted by phone later. “Everyone knows Yutaka Take here, he is a superstar, like a celebrity; racing fans know, but other people who don’t know racing, they know Yutaka Take.”
“When I was a child, growing up, I watched him riding superbly and he was up in the clouds above everyone else, he’s one of my heroes. As a person he is lovely, you actually can talk to him, he is easy-going, he’s not stuck-up at all; he would talk to anyone in the same way. He is the same to everyone.
“But he’s a superstar jockey as well, and I respect him a lot, so I won’t just ask him to ride whatever I want, I have to choose and pick carefully: it’s only right that I respect him and what I ask him to ride.”
It is an hour or so after our first brief greeting with Take and our JRA liaison is conscientiously ensuring we understand that our time with him is limited. Take is invited to sit in a basic desk chair at the arranged meeting place on an upper level of the glass-fronted Ritto stand. To his left the training tracks are still busy with horses, and on the wall behind him are framed images of the greatest horse he ever rode.
“My special horse. My best horse,” he says and the emotional bond he has with the great Deep Impact is obvious in his reverential tone and the expression in his face.
Deep Impact – Triple Crown winner, Japan Cup, Arima Kinen, Takarazuka Kinen, and Tenno Sho Spring hero, super-sire, Japan’s greatest thoroughbred – is a big part of Take’s story and his fame, but the jockey was an icon before he ever swung a leg across the brilliant dark bay’s back.
It all started for Take, professionally, on a bright day at Hanshin on March 1, 1987. Kunihiko Take’s son was having his first ride and the press pack was expectant. Born in Kyoto in March 1969, he was raised around the Ritto training centre where his father rode and trained; his grandfather Yoshihiko was for a time president of the horse owners’ association; one of his classmates at school was the current heavyweight JRA trainer Yasutoshi Ikee; he dreamed of being a jockey, of winning the Tokyo Yushun, Japan’s Derby.
Ahead of his first race ride, he smiled and chatted boyishly with interviewers, but he was to run second.
“People around me said that it was a good race, but for myself it was disappointing,” he says as the old footage is shown to him on an iPad. He watches, and, with a self-conscious smile, admits to a shade of embarrassment at seeing his young self on video.
“Because my father was also a jockey, and I look up to my father, I wanted to become a jockey when I was small. During my first race, it was like a childhood dream come true,” he continues.
“The most memorable thing was, before that moment, I was the one who looked at the track from the grandstand, but then I was looking at the stand from the track, it was the opposite. That’s what I had in my mind. The impression was strong, I thought, ‘It feels like I really became a jockey,’”
A week later, March 7, on a cold, grey, wet day at Hanshin, he nailed his first winner, putting lengths on his rivals aboard Dyna Bishop.
“It was an easy win, so it didn’t excite me too much: during the race I thought, ‘I can win this,’” he recalls. The footage of his return to unsaddle shows a young man brimming behind a cool exterior, eventually breaking to a smile. “I was very happy, because I had wanted that since I was small.”
From that moment, the success came fast and rolled along apace. He was champion apprentice with 69 wins and then champion jockey in his third season, at age 19, the youngest in Japan’s history; he has been champion 18 times; he has won the Tokyo Yushun a record six times, the first in 1998 on Special Week; he has won 80 Group 1 races; he held the JRA record for most wins in a season, at 212, until Christophe Lemaire edged past to 215; the world record for most prize money in a calendar year; and his tally of total JRA wins stands at 4,435 from 24,160 rides.
He has been the JRA leading prize money earner 16 times, has had the highest strike rate 11 times, and has won at least one stakes race for 36 years straight.
But the numbers are only part of what makes Take a rare ‘great’. His ability enabled him to reach those numbers, and around all of that his aura grew, especially after he hooked up with Oguri Cap for the ‘immortal’ grey’s epic career-capping Arima Kinen victory in 1990 before a crowd of almost 178,000 at Nakayama.
“I was still very young at the time and he had so many fans because he was such a star, so to be able to ride him, that itself was already a very happy experience for me,” he says.
“He came from the local racing to the JRA, and that kind of story is one that takes hold of fans’ hearts. Oguri Cap has given great memories to me, but he is also a horse that thrilled all of Japanese racing.”
Landing the Oguri Cap ride emphasises how Take’s timing in life, as with his riding, has been remarkable. He came along when Japanese racing was beginning to emerge internationally. When he debuted in 1987, the Japan Cup – a race he has won four times – was in only its seventh year, the stallion Northern Taste was dominating, advancing the breed.
By the time the 1990s had reached mid-point, the stallion Sunday Silence was in process of taking on the role of breed-shaper and with the added propulsion of Oguri Cap’s Arima Kinen, Take was maturing into a household name just as Japanese racing was evolving into a serious international concern. Take became the face of that evolution.
“Before I became a jockey, I was very interested in racing in foreign countries,” he says. “I enjoyed reading magazines like Blood Horse and I yearned to become a jockey and to try to get to ride in the United States and also Europe.”
He did just that: as early as 1990 he took his riding gear to North America. At first, and for a good decade, in fact, he was mostly pegged as an oddity from a distant racing backwater; he faced prejudices and criticisms of his style, and doubts about his ability, particularly in the US.
It was similar in Britain where fans took exception to his bookings on White Muzzle in 1994, at the expense of John Reid, for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Even in 2000, when he based himself at Santa Anita, his race rides dried up and he struggled to find support.
“The first time I went to America, I was asked ‘Oh, there is racing in Japan?’” he says. “The horsemen there were not really interested. However, even though I didn’t have a ride, I would still ride track work and when they actually saw my riding, then I got more and more opportunities,” he says.
“Japan wasn’t on that same level at that time, we were a little far away from them. It’s been bit by bit, to let people (outside of Japan) understand us. Like Ski Paradise, like Seeking the Pearl, when a Japanese horse and Japanese jockey won those races, they were surprised within them, but some day, I thought, hopefully, the day will come that they are not surprised.”
His win on Teruya Yoshida’s Ski Paradise for France’s premier trainer Andre Fabre in the 1994 Prix du Moulin was a vital breakthrough in the process of gradually changing perceptions of him to being more than a jockey who was just big in far-away Japan. Four years later he had another timely victory in France when he guided Seeking The Pearl to win the Prix Maurice de Gheest, becoming the first Japanese-trained Group 1 winner abroad.
His record of more than 100 wins ‘offshore’ features other notable successes in France, Hong Kong, Dubai and Britain, where he rode Agnes World in the July Cup in 2000 to be the first Japanese-trained winner on British soil. That was during an extended stay in France as stable jockey to John Hammond.
“Because he was the top jockey the journalists from Japan followed him,” says Fujii, who was a teenage fan of Take before he himself became a well-travelled jockey. “Back more than 20 years ago a lot of Japanese people didn’t know anything about the sport outside of Japan and it’s because of Yutaka Take going all around the world that people here started taking notice of big races in other countries.
“Now every time Japanese horses travel overseas for big races, Japanese fans can buy a ticket from the JRA to go to the Arc or the Breeders’ Cup. But back 20 or 30 years ago it wasn’t happening, so I think Yutaka was a very important influence for bringing attention to the overseas races.”
Take’s list of important wins around the globe is ample, and there are plenty worthy of comment, but his jaw-dropping win on A Shin Hikari in the G1 Hong Kong Cup of 2015 is among the standouts, and no one should have been surprised at either the rider’s mastery or the horse’s ability. By then, Japanese horses were well on the way to being considered the strongest bloc of global raiders and Take was world-renowned for his achievements. It was a sublime piece of front-running pacing by a great jockey, guiding a tearaway horse to a controlled and brilliant victory.
“He is an amazing jockey,” says Demuro. “From the first time I met him, I was looking at him and he’s strange, he’s taller and he’s skinny, so he interested me, I always look around and I was always surprised by this guy. He’s different from the others: long rein; horse relaxed.
“How they say it in Japan is ‘tensai,’ he’s a genius. I learn a lot from him during races and he does things that other people can’t do: the connections he has with the horses, he just knows what to do. He’s now 54 and nothing has changed from the first time I saw him, he was always like this. And as a character, he’s very nice, he’s a very polite person, quite quiet.”
But, as Demuro found out early, he also has the competitive hallmarks of a great champion.
“He’s a good friend and a gentleman, but in the race he doesn’t … he’s not that same gentleman, he takes what he has to take, he doesn’t give anyone a chance,” he says.
The A Shin Hikari win was a reminder to the world of Take’s living legend after a period of adversity. At 47, his era of dominance in Japan was past, in terms of championships and the volume of big races. He had hit a career low in 2010 when injuries resulting from a horrific fall at Hanshin that March decimated his season and knocked him back. He went from riding a double century of winners in 2003, 2004 and 2005, to just 56 wins in 2012.
Then came 2013 and his fifth Tokyo Yushun on Kizuna. Take was back on an upward curve that would further burnish his greatness. He added a sixth Derby with Do Deuce in 2022; this year he nailed yet another Group 1 with Jack D’Or in the Osaka Hai.
His legacy is prodigious and his career has influenced many of the next generation of jockeys, including young riders now forging careers overseas like Woodbine champion Kazushi Kimura and his compatriot in Toronto Daisuke Fukumoto.
“Deep Impact was my generation as a kid and I love Yutaka Take, he’s my idol jockey, that’s why I ride outside Japan, like he did in France and the US, I want to follow what he did,” Fukumoto told Asian Racing Report last year. “Everybody knows him, even in Canada Japanese people know Yutaka. If I ask jockeys if they know Japanese racing, they all say Yutaka Take, they all know of him.”
Take listens carefully as he is asked about that legacy, of being an inspiration to the jockeys that have come after him, and, who are in turn continuing to take Japanese racing to the world. He answers in a measured tone that somehow conveys both modesty and healthy self-assurance.
“To see these jockeys active, it makes me feel that I should strive for more, but it’s also a sense of motivation for me,” he says. “We all hold pride as Japanese, and it would be good if we were able to ride together as jockeys in the future.”
The man from the JRA is tense by now. He has been edging forward gradually and leans in to politely ask that we ask only one more question. He is evidently anxious that we are taking more of the great jockey’s time than was intended. Take speaks to him reassuringly and says it is not a problem, he is happy to talk longer.
He shares that he appreciates the influence or inspiration a sporting hero might have on a young athlete, having had his father fulfil that role in his life.
“To me, my father is like an example for me, like a bible,” he says. “I wanted to become my father, and when I actually tried becoming a jockey, I was able to understand how great my father was. I am very thankful for him.”
Now, with his career touching five different decades, it is natural to wonder if Take has any notion to retire in the next few years. His great European peer Frankie Dettori has announced he will retire later this year, at age 52, and fellow JRA champion Yuichi Fukunaga called time on his riding career in February to become a trainer.
“Frankie is still winning many races, so when he announced his retirement, I was like ‘Why is he retiring?’” he says. “But, yes, jockeys from my generation are retiring; when you’re a jockey for a long time, there are waves: there are good times, and times when life doesn’t work out that good.
“But I like racing, I like my job, I like being a jockey,” he adds. “I would like to continue as a jockey, because there is still a long way for me to continue in the future.”
So, his life extraordinary will continue as is, in what has become its own ordinary way: early mornings at Ritto, chatting with old faces, riding trackwork, speaking with trainers; race days on the JRA’s big show and the odd night appearance to wow the crowds on the NAR; he will win races and add to his record, and the fans will adore him as they have long done.
Take’s preeminent greatness is established, he remains the face of Japanese racing and the idol jockey all others aspire to, and his legend, however immense already, is still being written.