MORIOKA, IWATE PREF. – A teenage jockey from Tohoku recently made her professional debut, achieving a long-held dream after having nearly abandoned her career following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
“I hope people (in my hometown) will step forward a little watching me,” said Mayu Suzuki, 18, from Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.
After passing the national jockey examination in March, Suzuki made her debut a month later as Japan’s eighth active female jockey at Mizusawa Racecourse in neighboring Iwate Prefecture.
Suzuki first developed an interest in horse racing after watching a race on TV with her father, a fan of the sport himself, in her second year of junior high school.
When she later went to a track with her father, she learned there were women riders.
“I guess you can be a jockey too if you try hard,” her father told her, planting the seed in her mind that she could one day become a jockey.
In her final year in junior high, Suzuki unsuccessfully applied for admission to a jockey training school in Tochigi Prefecture.
It was shortly before the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011.
With the huge tsunami approaching her home in the coastal city of Kesennuma, she fled, leading her great-grandmother by the hand.
After the first floor of her home was damaged by flooding, her family lived on the second floor.
Suzuki, who entered high school that spring, no longer talked about her dream.
Seeing her so devastated, her mother, Akiko, 41, took her to a riding club to help her remember the time she was enthusiastic and dreamed about riding a racehorse.
After riding at the club, Suzuki remembered how strongly she aspired to be a jockey.
To develop her physical strength, Suzuki used to go out running at night.
Following the earthquake, she instead worked out in her room after other members of her family went to bed, as her town remained dark with no streetlights and tsunami debris not yet removed.
On her second try, she passed the entrance exam for the training school and left high school.
“There were times when I had almost given up,” Suzuki said. “But I realized that if we keep pursuing what we want to do, we can move forward even a little.”
In her 22nd race on May 19, about a month after her debut, Suzuki scored her first win.
“I aim even higher and want to take my place among senior jockeys . . . and win more races.”