Nanako Fujita is from Moriya, Ibaraki Prefecture, in eastern Japan. She enrolled in jockey school in 2013 at the age of 15 and received her license from the Japan Racing Association in 2016, making her the first woman to make her debut in 16 years. She claimed her first victory on Ascii Code at Urawa on March 24, 2016. She won six races in her first season. The following year, she broke the record for most wins in a season by a JRA female jockey, ending the campaign with 14 winners.
In 2018, Fujita steered Belmont Lahaina to victory in the 11th race of a meet in Niigata to break a 20-year-old record for the most wins in a single year.
In 2019, Nanako Fujita became the first female jockey to win a Graded race in Japan when she landed the G3 Capella Stakes at Nakayama. Fujita guided Copano Kicking to a two-and-a-half length victory over T O Genius. She made history as the first female JRA jockey to compete in a G1 race, finishing fifth on Copano Kicking in the February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse.
She broke her right collarbone in four places while riding at the Kokura race meeting in 2020. She missed several weeks of the season in the beginning due to this injury. In April, however, she returned to action and secured a significant landmark in her riding career by partnering with her 100th winner, Silver Jack in the first race at Fukushima. She won the 3rd edition of the Women's Jockey World Cup at Bro Park, Stockholm, winning two of the five races. She also competed in Britain for the first time at the Shergar Cup at Ascot. She rode seven winners in 2020.
In this exclusive interview, Fujita tells us about her journey and aspirations as a jockey.
Q: Where are you from and what is your earliest racing memory?
A: I was born in Moriya City, Ibaraki Prefecture, which is on the outskirts of Tokyo. My first encounter with horse racing was mainly watching it on TV. I began to admire horses as I watched the races. I started taking horse-riding lessons at JRA Miho Training Center located near my parents' house. I enjoyed the 2008 Tenno Sho race where Vodka and Daiwa Scarlet had a close race just before the winning post. Vodka won after a lengthy photo finish, but the fact that it was a close race between two fillies had a strong impact on me as an 11-year-old at the time.
Q: What advice would you give women who are trying to make their way into the horse industry as jockeys?
A: In Japan, there is a strong perception that horse racing is a male-dominated industry. This makes it very difficult for women to be active in the industry. Women must get more active in the horse racing industry. A lot of women may not want to become jockeys, but I hope that the ones who eventually choose this career path will develop a strong desire to never give up.
Q: Which horse is your favourite racehorse of all time?
A: My favorite horse is Copano Kicking, who won Riyadh Dirt Sprint in 2021 and then finished fifth in Dubai Golden Shaheen the following month. He gave me my first significant prize win. He is very energetic and runs very hard when he is racing. I will like to ride on him again, whether in Japan or abroad.
Q: Do you have a favourite day on a racecourse?
A: I enjoy the Japanese Derby Day held at the Tokyo Racecourse at the end of May yearly. For the past two years, due to the pandemic limiting racecourse admission, I have not enjoyed the unique atmosphere of the day. Usually, more than 100,000 people attend the event, so the jockeys have to ride in front of a huge crowd. This is why the Japanese Derby Day is my most energizing and refreshing day of the year. I like the exceptional atmosphere of the Tokyo Racecourse.
Q: Being a jockey is not easy and being a female jockey is even more difficult. What has kept you in the game for so long?
A: I always have a will to win. In addition to having a strong mind, I never give up. Winning a race motivates me for the next one, no matter how big or small it is.
Q: Who inspires you?
A: Mr. Yasuhiro Nemoto, a trainer running a stable at Miho Training Center inspires me a lot. He has been my mentor since I was a student at horse racing school. He has taken care of me for over eight years. As an ex-jockey, he always gives me advice on riding techniques and I feel that he watches over me. One day, I hope to win a big race with his stable horse and pay him back for his kindness. I also aim to be like Ms. Lisa Allpress, a jockey from New Zealand. She is now 46 years old and still one of the top jockeys in the world. I met her for the first time when I was a student at horse racing school, and I was greatly inspired by her attitude, striving to become the best jockey in the world. I am inspired by her strong will and ambition towards horse racing.
Q: What positive change would you like to see in the industry?
A: I hope to motivate more women in Japan to become jockeys. From last year to this year total three new female jockeys made their debut in JRA, and the number is expected to increase gradually. I hope the number of female jockeys continues to increase because it will lead to more excitement in horse racing. It will also help me improve my skills and motivation. If that happens, I will have more competition.
Q: If you were not in this industry, what would you be doing?
A: I would have found a job involving horses, probably a riding instructor.
Q: What book or movie would you be happy to recommend to your friend or colleague?
A: I liked the movie "Ride Like a Girl." It is about Michelle Payne, a former Australian jockey, and the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup in 2015. I was impressed by the powerful images from the jockey's point of view. It was lighthearted and cheerful in the midst of a touching story depicting the bonds between people. Through this movie, I could see how she achieved her dreams by working hard and never giving up, despite her many setbacks. It inspires me to do the same.