Jerry Taketa’s name hasn’t graced these pages since 1987 and it caught the attention of more than just the railbirds at Playfair Race Course. The column by Dan Weaver went into great detail about a horse racing accident in which the popular jockey broke his neck.
“I don’t know if I flew 1 foot, 2 feet or 10 feet,” Taketa told Weaver. “When you’re going 30-35 miles an hour and a horse ducks out from under you, it’s just like you’re sitting next to me with no seat belt on and we’re going down the freeway; I slam on my brakes and swing my steering wheel to the right at the same time.
“Where are you going?”
As Weaver wrote: To the hospital or the morgue.
Why not, after all, he rode after breaking a foot in three places, a wrist, six ribs (not all in the same spill), a collarbone twice, his nose and a thumb. Plus, he was only 45 at the time when he hit the Playfair dirt.
When Taketa’s doctor learned he resumed racing, he said to Taketa’s wife, Lynn, “That horse must have stepped on his head, too.”
The truth is, “Jolly Jerry the Japanese Jockey,” as he was known in the pressbox, was off a whole year and had two surgeries on his neck after the Playfair spill, which partially paralyzed him on his left side. But return he did, though he didn’t get mounts like before, when he was three-time jockey champion at Playfair.
He was riding with the broken thumb in March of 1992. He had two weekend mounts at Portland Meadows. His Saturday ride broke down in the middle of a crowd, convincing him to retire, which he did after his ride on Sunday won.
The retirement party was a week later.
• • •
Lynn and Jerry Taketa make an interesting story.
Lynn Oakes trained horses for her father after the family moved back to the area from California in the early 1970s.
She was close to having her first winner in 1973 when a horse ridden by Taketa blew by Piute Pass down the stretch.
The next time Piute Pass left the starting gate, Taketa was up and Lynn had her win.
Lynn and Jerry became friends, discovering they went to the same high school, Amador, in Pleasanton, Calif., though six years apart, after Oakes transferred from East Valley following her freshman year. In fact, she was in the same class with his brother and knew his two sisters.
By the time Taketa returned to Spokane after recovering from his broken neck both were divorced and a casual comment led to a new life. They were married in 1989.
• • •
Taketa insisted it wasn’t the injuries that ended his career, he was 50 and it was just time.
“You don’t think about the dangerous part; I never thought about it,” Taketa said. “And when you did go down, you just say some four-letter words before you hit the ground, or ‘Why me?’ ”
He still thinks about riding, or at least the part before he is separated from his mount.
“I do (miss riding),” he said. “I go to the track, I book (mounts for) jockeys in the fall and the spring, and it seems like to me, the type of riders we have here, even though I’m going to be 67, I feel like I could ride with these guys. If I got on a horse, I would probably feel different.”
Lynn, a graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts, had opened an art gallery and frame shop in Vancouver, Wash., by the time her husband hung up his tack. He continued to hang at Portland Meadows as kind of a jack of all trades, galloped horses during the Longacres season in Seattle and helped his wife expand the family business to three shop galleries.
Taketa also took a job as a sales rep for frame supplies, a job he passed on to Lynn when they sold their stores a few years ago.
• • •
Taketa was born in an internment camp at the Fresno, Calif., fairgrounds. The family moved to Arizona and Arkansas before returning to California, where they had a truck farm. He was a 5-foot, 100-pounder in high school when a friend who wanted to be a jockey but was too big convinced him to learn the trade.
The lure was simple.
“It’s better than picking strawberries,” he said.
Then he was hooked by the competition.
“I’ve always been sports-minded since grade school,” he said. “I like beating the other guy whether it was marbles or four squares. It’s the rivalry with other people. Boxing, wrestling, it didn’t matter what sports participated in. In the Army, school, it was just fun beating the other guy, trying to be the best you can.”
Even after the internment camp his father told him it was his duty. And the Army took him, even though the uniform kept falling off and he couldn’t see over the edge of a fox hole. Despite not being able to hold a rifle correctly he ended up as a marksman.
Then he returned to riding.
He was an apprentice in 1967 and after the season at Longacres moved on to Spokane. As a bug boy at Playfair he rode 37 winners to finish third in the jockey standings.
In 1970 he was second in the jockey standings at Playfair with 52 wins and the next year capture the first of three straight jockey championships. In 1972, he rode 70 winners, the second-highest total at the time behind the 77 Lennie Knowles rode in 1965.
His win total in ’73 was 72, including those on Piute Pass. Taketa was also up when Charity Line won the Playfair Mile, making the 3-year-old the first horse to win the Spokante Futurity, Spokane Derby and the Mile.
After that, Taketa rode only at Longacres and in Alberta. He did not return to Playfair until 1982, when he finished third in the standings with 64 wins, helping him reach the 500-win plateau.
In those days, anyone searching for Jerry just needed to wait until his laughter rang out.
“He’s still that way,” Lynn said.
Recently, there was a series of challenge races at Portland Meadows, featuring jockeys from Taketa’s old stomping grounds in California and Portland. One of the races was named after Taketa.
The good news, he said with a laugh, is he was there to see it.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.