Horse racing: Japan stands out on the world stage with its recent successes

Jockey Cristian Demuro celebrates after winning the Dubai Sheema Classic horse race at Shahryar in Dubai on March 26, 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) – Japanese horses have been in a vein of rich form at recent overseas races, as decades-long efforts to improve domestically bred thoroughbreds have narrowed the gap to horses raised in Europe and the United States.

Horses bred in Japan won five of nine races at the Dubai World Cup in March, including two freshman turf titles. Last year’s Japanese Derby winner Shahryar won the 2,410m Dubai Sheema Classic and Panthalassa won the 1,800m Dubai Turf.

“There are a lot of good horses in Japan. We can win anywhere in the world,” said Italian jockey Cristian Demuro, who won the Dubai Sheema Classic aboard Shahryar.

Panthalassa coach Yoshito Yahagi, who also coaches Loves Only You, three-time overseas G1 winners last year, said “the level in Japan as a whole is on the rise”.

The development of Japanese horses has been a long, slow endeavor since Hakuchikara became Japan’s first overseas entry in 1958. But the industry has made steady progress since Seeking the Pearl won in France in 1998 for becoming the first horse trained in Japan to win a G1 race in Europe. In 2019, Japanese horses won a record eight overseas G1 races.

Part of the effort to breed horses that can compete on the world stage has been the Japan Cup. Started in 1981, the race gave Japan the chance to invite the best horses in the world to the country and thus raised awareness in the domestic industry.

National farms and training centers were reorganized during the same period, while the Japanese went abroad to study training and riding techniques.

In a sport heavily influenced by breeding, the importation of retired American multiple G1 winner Sunday Silence as a stallion in the early 1990s was the next turning point, reflected in the success that followed. resulted for Deep Impact, sired by Sunday Silence, and their descendants in home and abroad races.

“By importing fast bloodlines from America, we have bred horses that can handle fast tracks,” said former trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, whose charges have won 35 G1 races, including one overseas.

Zenya Yoshida founded the Shadai Thoroughbred Club, which brought Sunday Silence to Japan. Shadai Farm raises and rears its own foals, while its leader, Yoshida’s eldest son, Teruya, brings in breeding mares and stallions from overseas.

The Japan Racing Association generated 3 trillion yen ($23.3 billion) in revenue last year despite the pandemic, and Teruya’s younger brother Katsumi, who runs Northern Farm, points out that handsome earnings potential is boosting the growth.

“You can expect a return on your investment from good betting ticket sales and prize money. That’s the wonderful thing about Japanese horse racing,” he said.

Purses of 400 million yen for winning the Japan Cup or Japan’s Arima Kinen are among the highest prizes in the world for a single race.

Success, however, has yet to materialize in victory in Europe’s major turf races such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, where Japanese horses have only managed four second places. A victory in the American Kentucky Derby, on clay, also remains elusive.

But after strong performances lately, Katsumi Yoshida hopes the wait will soon be over. Japan-trained Crown Pride, which won a G2 title in Dubai, is entered in the May 7 Kentucky Derby, while Shahryar is eyeing a place in Paris this fall.

“In no time, Japanese horses will be on top of the world,” he said.