Masa Tanaka is fulfilling a dream on his return to race riding in Korea.
The Japanese jockey left New Zealand early last month after securing a four-month contract with the Korean Racing Authority based at Seoul and he has wasted no time making his mark, kicking home three winners over three weekends.
This is Tanaka’s second Korean stint, having first ridden there in 2013 from a base at Busan, where he won 101 races over two years before returning to New Zealand.
“I always wanted to ride in front of crowds of 30,000 and I would never get that opportunity in New Zealand or even in Busan, but here it’s happened,” Tanaka said after landing a double last weekend.
“They race here at Seoul only on Saturdays and Sundays and the crowds are always between 20,000 and 30,000. It’s exciting being out there, even better when I’ve won.”
In Korea jockeys wear their own colours and Tanaka’s were first seen in the winner’s circle in Seoul when he kicked home Macha Bucha on July 22.
“My first winner over here was for the best trainer in Seoul, so that was a good start,” he said.
Last weekend Tanaka landed a winner on both Saturday and Sunday and was kept busy with a total of 18 rides.
“Usually a jockey isn’t allowed to ride in more than nine races on the programme, but a jockey was injured and I picked up 10 on the Saturday,” he said. “I was really tired after that, especially with the temperature being about 35 degrees and very humid.”
The 34-year-old has spent the majority of his career in New Zealand, winning 228 races headed by the 2011 Gr. 1 Thorndon Mile on Booming among his 11 stakes winners.
He rode 35 winners during the past New Zealand season, including the Listed Wellesley Stakes on Sir Nate and the Listed Timaru Cup on Kolonel Kev.
“I’ve always wanted to come back one day and I originally tried to get back into Busan this time, but there are quite a few Japanese riders there,” he said.
“It’s worked out even better getting into Seoul. It’s better racing and better prize-money. They race for an average of US$110,000.”
Tanaka is hoping to pick up rides in Korea’s two international races next month, the US$1 million Korea Cup and the US$700,000 Korea Cup Sprint.
“I’m working hard to get contacts and getting these three winners should help,” he said. “They also know I’ve ridden in Group Ones and won.”
Though racing only on weekends, Tanaka is kept busy riding trackwork six days a week and is riding at 53kg with the possibility of losing a further kilogram.
“I normally ride 10 to 12 every day and we get Tuesdays off,” he said. “It’s a lot easier with no travelling, just a short train trip to the same track each time.”
Tanaka said he will be all out to secure another contract when the current one expires at the end of October.
“I do miss New Zealand, but not the winter,” he said. “For now, Seoul is my home.”