TOKYO -- Aug. 12 was a big day in Japanese horse racing. Jockey Fumio Matoba notched his 7,152nd National Association of Racing (NAR) career win to set a new national record, and he did it at the age of 61.
The victory in the fifth race at the Tokyo City Keiba racecourse in the capital's Shinagawa Ward pulled Matoba past the previous record held by now 76-year-old Takemi Sasaki, who retired in 2001. All told, Matoba has run in 40,567 races since his professional debut 45 years ago.
"I've been in love with horse riding since I was in primary school," says Matoba, whose father ran a transport company and owned racehorses at the Saga Keiba racetrack in Saga Prefecture. His big brother was also a jockey. In the third year of junior high school, Matoba headed to Tokyo on his own, and got a job as a stable hand at Tokyo City Keiba (also known as the Oi racecourse) through an introduction by a horse owner acquainted with his father. And so began Matoba's horse-racing odyssey.
He made his pro debut in 1973, at age 17. Matoba went on to win the most races at the course every year for two decades straight starting in 1985, and was nicknamed the "Emperor of Oi." In 1997, Matoba overtook star jockey Yutaka Take (now 49) and his powerful Japan Racing Association (JRA) circuit horse to win the Teio Award race, his first victory in a G1 top-notch event where both JRA and NAR horses took part.
Today, Matoba is the third-oldest professional jockey in Japan.
"My muscles and my body have both become stiffer," he says. "The ideal riding style, one which keeps me stuck to the horse's back, is beyond me now."
Matoba's distinctive riding style, his upper body rising and falling furiously to spur on the horse, has come to be known among some fans as the "Matoba dance." However, it is also a way to compensate for his physical decline. "It has come to the point that I can't move the horse unless I move that intensely," he reveals. "But that's the best I can do now."
He added, "If I ever get off the horse, I'll just be another old guy. I'm not ready to be just another old guy yet." As for the next goal in his long career, Matoba says he wants to "reach the 7,200 win range." At the award ceremony after his record-breaking run, he told the some 14,000 spectators on hand, "I've only been able to achieve this because of all of you," and then bowed to the crowd. "I will keep treating each and every race in which I ride as important," he added.
(Japanese original by Nobuyuki Mashimo and Satoko Fujikura, Sports News Department)