An Irish-born veterinarian has achieved a lot of “firsts and onlys” in Japan, including becoming the first non-Japanese breeder of a horse to win the Japanese Derby, or Tokyo Yushun, one of the jewels in Japan’s Triple Crown.
But as the 51-year-old Harry Sweeney recalled in a recent interview, the “most difficult part” of his career here was becoming the first non-Japanese member of the Hidaka Horse Breeders Association in the town of Hidaka, Hokkaido, home to his Paca Paca Farm located in a hilly area overlooking the Hidaka mountain chain and the Pacific Ocean.
In early 1990, Sweeney received a phone call at his home near Dublin from an official of Taiki Farm in Hokkaido saying the farm was looking for a person to manage it. “Are you interested?” he was asked.
Sweeney declined. He didn’t want to travel so far so soon after getting married.
The caller then asked him to have dinner with him and stay at a five-star hotel in Dublin.
Sweeney said with a mischievous smile that he accepted the invitation, figuring it might be the only chance he’d ever have to stay at a five-star hotel in light of the slumping Irish economy.
“There was no Internet and I had no way of checking horse racing in Japan,” the blue-eyed Sweeney said, speaking mostly in Japanese. “But I thought it was an interesting adventure” after talking with the farm’s representative.
Sweeney did not ask why he was picked as a candidate to manage the ranch but speculated that his experience working as a veterinarian in Australia for one year was the reason.
He arrived in Japan on April 4, 1990. He was subsequently shocked by the treatment of horses as they were constantly scolded and whipped.
European horsemen recognize the characters of individual horses and scold them only when they rebel against humans, Sweeney said, adding, with some reservation, that the treatment of horses in Japan has since improved.
Sweeney was initially employed at Taiki Farm on a six-month contract, but he has stayed in Japan ever since. He has also worked as general manager of another farm, Machikane, in Hokkaido.
Sweeney opened his own ranch in 2001. Paca Paca is the Japanese term for the sound of horses galloping.
The ranch, which includes 155 hectares of land in the town of Hidaka, is bigger than the average farm in Ireland, Sweeney said as he looked at horses scattered in all directions.
Unlike other ranches in Japan, Sweeney puts horses on grass all year round, while importing specially ordered feed for them from Europe.
“Paca Paca Farm is the same as farms abroad,” he said. “Horses here have strong legs because they run up and down on a wide area all day long.”
Deep Brillante, a thoroughbred raised at Paca Paca Farm, galloped to victory in the Japanese Derby at Tokyo Racecourse last May 27.
As the only non-Japanese owner of a horse ranch in Japan, Sweeney has worked hard to earn his success.
He cleared the requirements under the Agricultural Land Act to acquire farmland and those of the Japan Racing Association, both of which are considered extremely difficult — if not impossible — for non-Japanese.
But an even higher hurdle was waiting for him — gaining membership in the horse breeders association in Hidaka, a virtual requirement for Sweeney to sell horses at auction because nonmembers are required to pay exorbitant fees to participate.
Japan’s horse racing circles were experiencing a wave of internationalization at the time. In the 1996 NHK Mile Cup, which was opened to imported horses for the first time, the top eight finishers were all foreign-born thoroughbreds, arousing fears that domestic racing would be dominated by invaders.
Sweeney filed for membership in the Hidaka association in spring 2001 and was accepted that fall, an unusually long period compared with the few months it usually takes for Japanese breeders.
Japanese horse breeders must have seen Sweeney’s application for membership as the “arrival of a ‘black ship,’ ” a JRA official said, referring to the U.S. naval expedition in the middle of the 19th century commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry (1794-1858) that resulted in the opening of Japan to international trade.
The breeders probably felt the same way as rice growers striving to block the opening of the nation’s rice market to imports, the official added.
Problems with the Japanese economy began to eat into the horse racing industry early in the 2000s. Revenue for the JRA plunged to some ¥2.3 trillion in 2011 from ¥4 trillion in 1997 and in 2012 equaled about 40 percent of the 1997 level despite a moderate increase from the previous year.
More than 10 tracks have closed since 2001 and the Fukuyama oval in Hiroshima Prefecture is due to be shut down by the end of fiscal 2012 on March 31.
In addition, the number of horse breeding farms has plunged to around two-thirds of the 1,579 that existed in 2001. Mejiro Farm, which produced champion Mejiro McQueen, was among those that have gone out of business in the past decade.
Paca Paca Farm now ranks around 20th among ranches in Japan in terms of stakes won by racehorses it has produced, overcoming financial difficulties following the Lehman Brothers shock of 2008.
Breeding of racehorses is a “risky businesses” because foals bought for tens to hundreds of millions of yen don’t necessarily become winning horses, Sweeney said.
“But I have invested in horses and facilities” to grab business chances, he added.
Sweeney came to Japan 100 years after the arrival of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) from Ireland, who later became a Japanese citizen and introduced Japan to the rest of the world through his writings under the name of Yakumo Koizumi.
Sweeney, who has brought the world to Japan’s horse racing circles and helped them open the door wider to foreign horses, said raising the Japanese Derby winner is “undeniably” the most significant achievement of his career.