ABIRA, Hokkaido – “There are two contrasting worlds in horse racing: one glamorous and the other prosaic,” said Toru Iwasaki, a Sapporo University economics professor who has been studying horse breeding areas in Japan since the 1970s.
Iwasaki, 62, said the horse breeding areas are a far cry from the glamorous world of big-time racecourses.
The celebrated thoroughbred Deep Impact came from Northern Farm Hayakita near the town of Abira, Hokkaido. Last year the high-flying colt won the Triple Crown, sweeping the Satsuki-sho, Japan Derby and Kikka-sho.
But back at Northern Farm, it’s work as usual.
Takahiro Hara, 20, has been working on the farm since January. He has a hand in bringing horses together for breeding. He decided to pursue the job while still in the fifth grade, when he was fixated with video horse racing games.
“Every day, I spent five hours playing the games,” he said. “Since then, I have been following horse races on TV and in magazines. There are many others like me here.”
Trainer Kei Isshiki, 24, has been here for three years, and his first horse debuted last year. He belonged to his university’s equestrian club.
“Nothing gives me more pleasure than to see the growth of horses,” he said.
Hara hails from Nagano Prefecture and Isshiki from Mie Prefecture. Young people with similar dreams come to the farm from across Japan.
In Hokkaido’s Hidaka district, dubbed the “home of thoroughbreds,” there are more than 1,000 farms. They include Niikappu, which produced Haiseiko, a legend in the 1970s that first won the Satsuki-sho in spring 1973.
About 6,200 of the more than 7,500 thoroughbred horses produced in Japan last year were from these farms.
Horse breeding in the Hidaka district exploded in the 1960s. Then in the 1970s many farm owners turned to breeding thoroughbreds when they were swept up in the excitement over Haiseiko. That the government adopted a policy of reducing rice production around this time didn’t hurt.
But today many farms are hurting financially because of soaring costs, as symbolized by the stud fee of Sunday Silence, sire of Deep Impact, which was reportedly more than 20 million yen. On the other hand, horses whose lineage is said to be poor are sold for next to nothing, and the number of thoroughbreds going unsold is increasing due to the closure of near-empty tracks in small markets.
“Neither Haiseiko or Oguricap, which were around after Haiseiko, had good lineages, but the opportunity to turn things around like that has become rare,” Sapporo University’s Iwasaki said.
“Even so, producers still pursue their dreams, feeling the business is worthwhile,” Iwasaki said.
It is in these circumstances that the Shadai group, which includes Northern Farm, has come to be known as the “only winner.” It has not only imported such famous horses as Northern Taste and Sunday Silence but is also trying to modernize and rationalize its operations by raising the conception rate and creating indoor tracks where horses can be trained in winter.
“The level of the facilities and the technology are quite different from small farms,” said a young worker at Northern Farm.
An estimated 94,000 people flocked to the racecourse in Kyoto to watch Deep Impact run in the Emperor’s Cup.
“Horse racing courses used to be dirty, dark and fearful places, but from around the time Haiseiko debuted, women began appearing. What a change!” said racing writer Ryoma Hara, 72.
Deep Impact smashed the Emperor Cup’s record by a full second, crossing the finish line in 3 minutes, 13.4 seconds. The second- and fourth-place horses also came from Northern Farm Hayakita, and the No. 3 horse was from Shadai Farm. The sire of the top three finishers was Sunday Silence.
“It dawned on baby boomers, then teenagers, that people cannot live without entertainment like horse racing, fishing and mah-jongg,” said cartoonist Hiroshi Kurogane. “Before then, Japanese people had little time to enjoy life after the war.
“In those days, people holding racing newspapers drew ‘cool’ looks from passersby,” Kurogane said. “But now racecourses have become a favorite dating spot.”