May 14, 2012 in Sports

Akifumi Kato: A jockey’s odyssey

Jim Price Correspondent
 

Akifumi Kato, the leading jockey in Playfair history, recently reached 2,000 career wins at a race in Phoenix.
(Full-size photo)

While mathematicians might be tempted to disagree, Akifumi Kato continues to demonstrate that the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.

Those who remember horse racing in Spokane, remember Playfair Race Course. And those who remember Playfair, probably recall Kato, the jockey who, strictly speaking, became the most successful rider in the annals of the ill-fated historic track. Playfair may be defunct. Kato is not.

Kato, son of a Japanese jockey turned trainer, was born in Osaka. Now 60, he came to Spokane for the first time in 1973 and populated the jockey standings so frequently for the next quarter century, that, by 1995, right here, he had ridden 1,104 winners. He won two championships, finished among the top six riders more than a dozen times, and won a record four renewals of the Playfair Mile.

One month ago, at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Kato joined the select ranks of jockeys who have ridden 2,000 career winners.

“If I didn’t take a detour,” Kato said by telephone from his Arizona home, “I would have done it a long time ago.”

He has not proceeded directly from his first winner to his last.

“I took another job, as a bloodstock agent,” he said.” I started buying horses for Japanese people. One thing led to another, I met one of the biggest owners in Japan, and then I studied the bloodlines and did some research. I bought a sales-topper in Keeneland twice.”

Some horse people don’t do that in a lifetime.

Kato began hanging around prestigious sales rings while he was riding regularly in Spokane. And he already had started selling equipment – tack – to his fellow jockeys. His best client’s illness led him to cut back on his bloodstock work. But the tack business now has a website and a nationwide clientele.

So how does he find time to ride?

“I just like to stay busy,” he said.

Although Kato grew up around thoroughbreds, it wasn’t racing that brought him to the U.S.

“I just wanted to come to Disneyland,” he said, thinking back to the summer of 1971. “I didn’t think about riding and only knew about Hollywood Park because it was close to the airport. So I went there and got to know a few trainers. One who put me on a horse said I looked OK.”

Kato had his first mount early the next year at Golden Gate Fields. And he rode his first winner that August at Ferndale, a quaint, remote stop on the Northern California fair circuit. He moved on to the Oregon State Fair meet in Salem and the Fresno (Calif.) District Fair before teaming up with veteran agent Whitey Fried at Portland Meadows in the spring of 1973. Kato won 23 races to edge local high-school girl Jane Driggers for apprentice honors. That summer in Spokane, Fried booked mounts for Kato, Driggers and defending champion Jerry Taketa. He had a great meet.

Kato won only once in his first 56 rides. But in the season’s third week, he rode nine winners and zoomed into the upper ranks of the standings.

Gregarious and talkative, speaking broken English with a heavy accent, he became an almost instant favorite of fans and the media. He got a big laugh at a gathering of the Sports Writers and Broadcasters when he pointed out that “English is required in the Japanese schools, but it was my worst subject.”

The press box gang affectionately dubbed him “Aki Sake, the Cocky Jockey.”

By the time Kato lost his 5-pound weight allowance, he had set a Playfair apprentice record with 48 victories. For the season, he finished third in the standings with 59 wins, Taketa won his third straight title, and Driggers became the official apprentice leader.

After an unremarkable 1974 season at Playfair, Kato placed second in 1975. A first-turn spill badly injured his left shoulder early in the 1976 meet. But he rebounded to win the 1977 title with 64 wins. In 1982, he began the most extended stretch of riding success in track history, collecting more than half of his Spokane victories in the space of seven years.

In 1983, he married Dori Yamaura, a Spokane auto mechanic’s daughter. The next year, he won another Playfair title.

Kato’s first championship season had brought his second Playfair Mile victory. He and Hyali Talk, owned and trained by Vic Bickler of Billings, Mont., won the Inland Empire Marathon Prep and overhauled I’m Kemah in the final strides to win the Mile, the season’s most important handicap event. As a result, Hyali Talk was elected Horse of the Meeting.

Kato won his third Playfair Mile astride Charmhersweet in 1979. Eagle Joe provided his fourth in 1983. Jerry Pruitt matched him a decade later by riding his second, third and fourth winners (1986-88).

“The one I had more fun with was Hyali Talk,” Kato said. “He was so versatile and so durable a horse. The week before the Mile (the Marathon Prep), he had broken the track record for 15/8 miles under a gallop, so I knew he had the air. I took him back off the pace and then here he came.”

Hyali Talk, with Kato aboard, won stakes races at Denver’s Centennial Park the next summer and, after running against Charmhersweet there in 1979, Kato said, “I told his trainer, Mike Griffin, to bring her to Spokane, and we’ll win the Playfair Mile. He did, and she did.”

Like Kato, Hyali Talk raced almost into his dotage. The chestnut gelding made an extraordinary 104 career starts, winning 37 races and earning $100,773. He and Kato won 17 times together in 36 tries. At Turf Paradise alone, the horse won 19 of 31 starts, usually with Kato aboard.

Kato’s secondary job as a bloodstock agent became his primary occupation by the 1990s.

At Lexington, Ky., in 1995, he led the Keeneland sale of breeding stock with a bid of $2.5 million on behalf of Kazuo Nakamura for the great British race mare User Friendly. In 2006, acting on behalf of Nakamura’s son, Isami, he topped another sale by spending $875,000 for three-time Canadian distaff champion One For Rose. Each winter, Kato had to skip Phoenix riding opportunities to be there.

Kato said one newsman wrote, “He may be the only guy in the world who could buy a sales-topper one night and ride a $3,000 claimer the next day.”

Kato achieved his recent milestone April 16 on a 3-year-old filly named She’s A Hit, rallying her to win the eighth race by a head.

How important was it?

Kato laughed. “When I got close, I said ‘Man, I got to do that.’ For that race, I told my wife, ‘You’d better come today. If everything goes, I know she should win.’”

She’s A Hit is trained by Kato’s daughter, Kaylyn. Aki and Dori Kato also have a son, Akihiro, a University of Phoenix employee.

Goals aside, why does a 60-year-old with other income battle horse traffic on a race track?

“I just love riding,” Kato said, getting right to the point. “It’s the thrill of being out there and being competitive.”

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