Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Akifumi Kato’s 50 Years Riding Winners ‘Went By Quick’

If you’ve spent a lot of time watching racing on the West Coast, you may have been surprised to see Akifumi Kato’s name in the program at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz., last week. Could it be the same jockey who once dominated Playfair Race Course, taking four editions of the Playfair Mile?

Indeed, it is the same Akifumi Kato who made the winner’s circles in the state of Washington familiar spaces in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. In fact, Kato turned 69 years old on Jan. 7, the same day he booted home his 2,034th career winner, She’s a Lady Griz, earning him the unusual distinction of having ridden a winner a year for 50 years.

Kato said it’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since he started his career as a jockey.

“It went by quick,” he laughed. “Time goes by quick when you keep busy. Sometimes I look at my age and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I was that old.’”

At this point in his career, Kato rides by choice rather than by necessity and pilots horses exclusively for friends and family.

“I feel I can still compete, so that’s why I still do it. And it keeps me healthy too,” he said. “Mainly I ride for my daughter and my friends. That’s enough. I did the hard grind when I was young.

“It gets in my blood, I think.”

The people have always been a central draw to the racetrack life for Kato. The son of a Japanese jockey turned trainer, he was born in Osaka and immigrated to Spokane in the early 1970s, at which point he was transfixed by racehorses. In racing families it seems the next generation either embraces the track life wholeheartedly or runs the other way as fast as they can. Kato watched his father zip around aboard fast horses and thought simply, ‘That looks fun. I’ll try that.’

He learned to gallop at Hollywood Park, which he said he mostly knew about because it was close to Los Angeles International Airport, got his first mount at Golden Gate Fields and his first winner at the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, Calif. Kato would go on to settle in Spokane and set a Playfair apprentice record of 48 wins and hovered at or near the top of the jockey standings through the 1980s.

Akifumi Kato, in pre-coronavirus pandemic photo (courtesy of Kato family)

At the height of his career, Kato said he struggled to find well-priced jockey equipment and tack. Before the internet, there were few options, especially if you wanted something cutting edge or something produced overseas. Many fans underestimate the array of different choices (and the expense) a rider may have in their supplies. Kato began importing equipment from Japan and selling it to his fellow riders.

“I didn’t think I’d still be doing it all this time later,” he said. “I know what equipment will help people. I can explain it to them when they ask me. And most of the guys know me from the past, so it’s a word-of-mouth deal. I love the friendships. I like to see everyone do well.”

As if two jobs weren’t enough, he cut back on mounts in the 1990s when he had the chance to try his hand at purchasing horses. Kato had maintained contacts in the Japanese racing industry and began scouting horses at top American sales for Kazuo Nakamura and later his son Isami.

At the 1995 Keeneland November Sale, Kato said he was the agent representing Nakamura when he bought the sale-topping British broodmare User Friendly for $2.5 million. He made trips to Kentucky as racing manager for several Japanese clients, checking on boarded horses and shopping at the big sales as requested, and would then return to the West Coast and resume riding blue collar horses at Playfair.

“By definition they’re different, when you’re looking at the top end of horses [versus claimers], but in reality I have to deal with the inexpensive horse,” he said. “But I still get the same adrenaline out of riding an inexpensive horse or a good horse. I think people should have the same drive. When you get on a horse, you have to do the best you can.”

Gradually though, Kato’s sales clients cut back due to illness and he was back to having two jobs again instead of three. His primary employer on the track these days is his daughter, Kaylyn Kato, who trains a string of five at Turf Paradise for herself, her family and one outside client.

As much as she had loved horses, Kaylyn Kato hadn’t planned on becoming a trainer, but she graduated from college in the middle of the Great Recession and went to the track to earn a living while she figured out what to do. Jobs in the outside world were scarce, and she quickly realized that she took pride and comfort from managing her own horses and knowing they were getting the best of care.

Kaylyn keeps her operation small so that she can do most of the work herself, but she has help from her father, who is in the saddle every morning.

“He can tell if they don’t have quite as much bounce in their step,” she said. “I think that day-to-day interaction gives him a better feel of how they are on race day.”

It may seem like a recipe for awkwardness, a daughter having to give riding instructions to her father in the paddock, but Kaylyn believes it’s an advantage.

“Especially now that we’ve worked together for so long, it’s really easy to communicate because I think I’m fully able to explain what I want from him and what I’m looking to get out of the horse,” she said. “Because we’re father and daughter, I’m not afraid to speak my mind. I really, really trust my dad. I know he’s going to give me his very honest feedback on how a horse feels.”

The horse Akifumi Kato took to victory earlier this month was trained by Kaylyn. The family also keeps their four-legged family members close – Kaylyn said the most impactful horse in her partnership with her father was Frisky Ricky, winner of the 2014 Sandra Hall Grand Canyon Handicap and hard-knocking claimer who has been retired to her shedrow. She’s trying to convince 15-year-old “Ricky” that he should be a pony now that his last race was two years ago, but the spunky gelding asks her each morning if she’s sure he couldn’t have a little gallop around the Turf Paradise course.

Kaylyn said that the family has hoped Akifumi would slow down as the years have worn on, but they know not to expect him to retire before he’s ready – he’s cheerful and easygoing, but determined. He says it’s all a matter of drive. Each fall becomes harder to recover from physically and mentally as you age, but he still feels capable of swinging back aboard and giving a competitive effort. The moment that comfort evaporates, he said, he’s hanging it up.

Whenever that day comes, he will leave a legacy Kaylyn is proud to carry on.

“He’s an amazing athlete to keep going for this long,” she said. “He’s been a really good role model, I think. He always taught us to work hard and treat other people well, that you contribute to a happy atmosphere and everyone does better.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Akifumi Kato’s 50 Years Riding Winners ‘Went By Quick’ appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

DYFD Winter - 300x90

Comments are closed.