Masafumi Matsuda, Assistant Trainer for Japan’s Crown Pride, Aims to ‘Change History’ in Kentucky Derby

The Life
Masafumi Matsuda is the assistant trainer and exercise rider for Japanese hopeful Crown Pride as he prepares at Churchill Downs for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In an unusual training regimen for Kentucky Derby contenders, Crown Pride canters perfect 20-meter circles behind the chute at Churchill Downs. He is composed, quiet and focused. Minutes later when he enters the track, he flips a switch internally and becomes an intense Thoroughbred pulling for his head to run faster.

Crown Pride with Matsuda under the Twin Spires. (Coady Photography)

Two-time Kentucky Oaks winner rider Rosie Napravnik has noticed Crown Pride’s morning rituals. She said, “It’s a great way to warm up mind and body. Keeping them relaxed and focused. You will see their energy change before they get to the pole where they start their breeze.” 

Crown Pride earned his way into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve by winning the UAE Derby Sponsored by Mubadala. He was part of a brilliant day of racing for five horses from Japan at the $12 million Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates Airlines. He is the fourth horse from Japan to enter the Derby. He has been at the track for a month since the UAE Derby and is thriving!

Assistant Trainer Masafumi Matsuda is present with Crown Pride. He has been entrusted with the Derby preparation by trainer Kochi Shintani. Churchill’s Japan Coordinator Kate Hunter explains that, “Masa is the team. He is 100% completely devoted to every little thing the horse needs at any time of day. He is constantly watch and feeling and listening for any changes to the horse in any way. After years of honing his skills all over the world, I can’t think of a person more suited to be preparing one of the best shots Japan has ever had at winning the Kentucky Derby than Masa.”

Matsuda’s life has been about the passion of horses since the day he was born. His childhood photos show an exuberant child bouncing on a plushy horse at 3 years old perfecting his form which is still visible today.

Masa Matsuda at 3 years old with a plush pony. (Image courtesy of Maso Matsuda)

He explains “from the time I was born, my alarm clock was the sound of horses walking, so I didn't need an alarm clock or the need to choose another job. There was no choice. I have lived this life all the way here with good luck and good timing.” 

Matsuda comes from a distinguished family in horse racing. His grandfather (Yoshitaro Matsuda) was a trainer “who won two Japanese Derbys.” His mother (Atsuko) is the daughter of trainer Yutaro Matsuda. His father (Yukiharu) was a jockey for 23 years and a training assistant for 19 years. He was the first Japanese jockey to ride abroad as an Irish trainee. “My dad won the Japanese Oaks and two Queen Elizabeth Cups, one of which was the first Queen Elizabeth Cup. I wonder if I had no choice from the moment I was born but to continue in their footsteps.” 

The first trainer he worked for was Hideyuki Mori, who he described as a “top trainer with international ambitions. He always taught me to keep adjusting.” Matsuda was part of the Mori team who won the July Cup at Newmarket with 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Agnes World. In 2000, they competed with Agnes World in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs. 

“With Mr. Mori's Air Shakur, I was able to take on the challenge of the King George in England [at Ascot]. I was also able to accompany a number of horses to France and Singapore. Then I worked for trainer Katsuhiko Sumii, who won the American Oaks with Cesario and the Melbourne Cup with Delta Blues. Thanks to him, I was able to win Dubai World Cup with Victoire Pisa in Dubai.”

Masa Matsuda on horseback at age 13. (Image courtesy of Maso Matsuda)

He returned to Dubai with Crown Pride. He speaks with joy of that special day in Dubai when Crown Pride won the UAE Derby. “I had heard that the owner of this horse, Teruya Yoshida, had studied horses in Kentucky when he was young, and he had always wanted to bring a horse to the Kentucky Derby. We really wanted to win. We were thrilled to get the opportunity to come here for the Kentucky Derby, not just with a horse who qualifies but with a horse that proved he deserves to be here. It's also a nice surprise that he won it in such an unexpectedly strong way!”

Crown Pride “seems to have settled in very well. He has made many friends, like I have. Crown Pride really likes Monnie [Goetz] who ponied us the first few days of our stay here. He will call out to her when he hears her. He has really relaxed into his American life.”

Monnie Goetz has enjoyed her time with Matsuda and Crown Pride. “That horse is a character! He knows my voice. If he hears me when I am walking through barns, he starts talking to me. That horse is so smart. When I say hello, he sticks his head out and perks his ears. He knows who I am!”

Matsuda explains Crown Pride’s personality. “He can turn on and off smoothly, which is very good for a racehorse to be able to do. Maybe, he is similar to an actor? I feel like he has a work mode and a private mode. He has a sense of taking care of himself. He is still young, so he can be a bit naughty sometimes and likes to try to bite playfully.

“I look forward to seeing how the scenery will change on Derby day, while walking along the track with Crown Pride. I have heard that a great number of people will be there. I am excited to see it.”

Matsuda galloping Crown Pride at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

He is doing all that he can do to prepare Crown Pride for jockey Christophe Lemaire.  As one of Japan’s top international jockeys, he is riding in his first Kentucky Derby. With Matsuda’s careful attention to details, there is quite a Derby buzz building about Crown Pride’s odds for winning on the first Saturday in May.

Matsuda reflects. “I want to change the history of horse racing and the history of Japan by winning the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. We came here to change history.

“The Chinese characters in my first name Masafumi(全史) takes the 全 from ‘all the world’ (全世界) and the 史 from ‘history’ (歴史). It has the meaning of a name to change the history of the whole world. I was unable to change history in the Breeders’ Cup with Agnes World at Churchill Downs last time, so this time I definitely want to win and change history.”

Matsuda is very proud of Crown Pride. “I hope fans will come to Churchill Downs to see his big, beautiful stride. They may be more obsessed with his charm after that. I will try my best to win the Kentucky Derby for Crown Pride’s owner, Teruya Yoshida. My dream now is to take pictures with Crown Pride in the winner’s circle. I want to change history.”

Special thanks to Kate Hunter for providing translation for this interview. 

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