JAPANESE-born jockey Yoko Ota is not a dreamer but she has spent half her life living in optimistic hope on a sometimes frightening roller coast ride in racing.
The 35-year-old always wanted to be a jockey but her applications to join an apprentice school in Japan were twice turned down. She read of a Japanese apprentice jockey school at Deagon, a racing-community suburb of Brisbane.
Yoko was only 18 when she left bustling Tokyo for, by comparison, the sleepy hollow of Deagon. She rode her first winner in 1999.
She has now ridden in more than 900 races and is also regarded as a skillful track work rider, but she gets few opportunities these days. She has only one ride on Friday at Bairnsdale – on 12-year-old gelding Phantom Flight in the last race at 5pm.
Phantom Flight has been around. He has raced 134 times for 17 wins and 31 placings, mostly on the picnic racing circuit. His last win was in a two-horse race at Omeo on March 8 this year, while has last win at a TAB meeting was at Pakenham on May 17, 2011.
He started at $201 and finished 11th of 12 runners at Sale on October 26.
Yoko’s last winner was on I Maximus in an 1850-metre maiden at Kyneton on February 2, 2013. Her only five rides since returning on October 10 after 13 months absence through injury were a last of 11 at Cranbourne, seventh of 10 (Moe), 11th of 13 (Bairnsdale), last of 14 (Bairnsdale) and last of 12 at Sale.
The phrase “absence through injury” could not be a greater understatement as doctors then told Yoko she had come within a millimetre of become a paraplegic.
The greatest threat to her love of riding followed her most successful weeks in racing. She had returned to Japan to ride in non-totalisator races on the NAR circuit. She won 10 races in the first month before breaking a bone in a foot.
Yoko returned to Australia and waited for the injury to heal. Some weeks later she was given a doctor’s clearance to ride again – only to be “king-hit” the very next day by a horse’s savage swing of its head. A vertebrae in Yoko’s neck was damaged and for two months she suffered constant pain and dizziness.
Surgeons replaced the damaged area with an artificial disc and for another two months she could not turn her head, run or even exercise.
“I was told that the injury was only a millimetre away from a spinal cord nerve that, if damaged, would have resulted in me being a paraplegic,” she said. “It improved slowly but I wondered at the time whether I could ever ride again”.
“I feel normal now and so happy and grateful to be riding again.” She said. “I don’t really chase rides and I am not offered many rides but I am doing what I love.”
And Yoko is obviously still full of hope. She said old Phantom Flight had never felt better in track work and she expected him to run well at Bairnsdale. Her hopefulness must be contagious as Sale-based-trainer Reg Manning named Phantom Flight the best chance of his three runners on Friday.
Manning was full of praise of Yoko who rides track work for him twice a week and in return he supports her with occasional race rides. “You would not meet a happier and nicer person,” he said.
Yoko became an honorary interpreter for connections of Admire Rakti during his Caulfield Cup triumph and his ill-fated Melbourne Cup run. “I watched them and shared their great victory and then the sadness on Melbourne Cup day,” she said. “My heart goes out to them.”
Yoko’s heart is a big one and a brave one.