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In horse racing, it is simply a fact that the strong win and the weak lose.

Each year, only 18 horses out of an entire generation get to compete in the glamorous Japanese Derby. This year, 7,398 3-year-olds competed fiercely for the privilege. But the sad fact outside the spotlight is those that quietly retire without ever finishing first outnumber those that do.

Under the rules of the Japan Racing Association, horses that win at least once by the summer of the year they turn 3 years old are allowed to compete in the following fall and beyond. Eventually, however, the moment arrives when all racehorses must retire, whether they are competing at Grade 1 — the top tier of the system’s pyramidal structure — or languishing at its base.

After retiring, males may move on to become stallions if they have an admirable track record in major races or are blessed with an advantageous pedigree. Similarly, females can go on to become broodmares. But these paths are open only to a handful of horses.

The JRA offers subsidies to support retired horses that have won high-stakes races, but owners are reluctant because the cost of maintaining one ranges from ¥70,000 to ¥100,000 ($640 to $914) per month. The stark reality is that many racehorses are culled after retirement.

But efforts have been made in recent years to save them from this tragic fate. Among them is a “foster parent” program to support old horses by collecting monthly membership fees.

Katsuhiko Sumii, a former trainer who has produced many famous horses, including derby winners Vodka and Roger Barows, is promoting activities such as therapy and retraining to convert retired horses for horseback riding. Other ways to “re-employ” such horses are gradually emerging.

The JRA meanwhile has stepped up support efforts. After joining the International Forum for the Aftercare of Racehorses in July 2016, a group initiated by Godolphin — Dubai ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s horse-racing team — the JRA launched a program “to support the lives of retired racehorses,” in December 2018.

The two key pillars of this program are a service to support the re-employment of retired racehorses and efforts to improve their environment in retirement. The first may be unique to Japan.

In Europe, where horse racing and breeding thrive, more horses are produced than in Japan and breeders are active in producing them. It is said that no one spends money on retraining them for horseback riding.

So why do Japanese bother to retrain them? To “expand the options for retired racehorses,” said Takahiro Nishio, adviser to the JRA’s horse-affairs division.

Simply put, the association is working to improve animal welfare and the racing industry’s contribution to society. These efforts include support to find uses for horses indigenous to Japan, and a program to dispatch them to primary schools to give children opportunities to interact with horses. The association is doing this because it believes it can promote horse culture by deepening public understanding of the animals and creating an environment for that.

Still, human resources, places and opportunities to support such horses remain far from sufficient despite the JRA’s efforts. In 2020, only 28 organizations opted to use the JRA’s support money, a total of ¥70 million, even though 70 inquired about it.

“You can’t set a goal,” Nishio said. “We are dealing with living things, and there are many things that we must do on an ongoing basis. I think we should do the things that will bear fruit in 10 or 20 years.”

Ultimately, Nishio is pursuing ways to allow horses and humans to coexist comfortably. He plans to gradually expand the scope of the activities, waiting for the time when the seeds he sows can blossom.

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