Horse racing is considered a sport of bloodlines. The people who breed horses or the places where they are bred may change, but their bloodlines remain. The origins of Japan’s horse racing can be traced through bloodlines.

Turn back the hands of time 114 years to 1907, when a sire and 20 dams came to Japan from the United Kingdom. There was still no airplane to carry them. They traveled by ship to make their way to Asia. The horses were imported by Koiwai Farm in Shizukuishi, Iwate Prefecture. “I believe it was a very expensive purchase at that time, just to think of the cost of transportation,” said Hiromi Nozawa, the director of the museum attached to the farm. Today, Koiwai is known as a gourmet dairy brand. But only a handful of Japanese know the company established the foundation of horse racing in Japan.

Koiwai Farm was established in 1891 by Gishin Ono, then-vice president of the former Nippon Tetsudo (Japan Railway), Yanosuke Iwasaki, second president of Mitsubishi Corp., and Masaru Inoue, who was then director-general of the former Railways Agency. Koiwai is actually an acronym combining the first kanji each from the three men’s family names in that order. Its operations initially centered on farming, but the crop was not as good as they hoped despite many attempts to improve soil quality. Eventually, in 1899, eight years after its establishment, Koiwai shifted the focus of operations to livestock.

At the time, breeding race horses was still not on the farm operators’ mind. The farm was mainly growing and selling calves and foals. Things took a different turn after the breeding business took off.

In 1905, the government announced “informal permission” to sell betting tickets for horse racing. At the time, horses were the main means of transportation. To improve the quality of one’s horses — it was believed around the world — was a way to strengthen a nation. Iwasaki, who was then ranch chief, immediately decided to make a huge investment, sensing an opportunity to profit. At the time, Sosuke Niiyama, director of the former state-run Shimofusa Imperial Stock Farm, was hired to head Koiwai. He was solely in charge of assessing horse quality, and a project transcending the boundary between the public and private sectors began.

Iwasaki’s idea was reflected in the introduction of a new bloodline.

“Iwasaki himself had been a breeder, so he was aware of the need to improve the pedigree,” Nozawa said. The breed candidates considered for import included Anglo-Arabian stock. Had the thoroughbred not been chosen in the end, the history of Japan’s horse racing would have taken a completely different path.

The Koiwai Farm grew significantly after it began the race horse business in earnest. The farm faced a crisis when the sale of betting tickets was banned in 1908, but overcame it by producing and selling an original crossbreed between a thoroughbred and a hackney. The farm subsequently reached its prime period. Since then, six Koiwai-produced horses have won the Japan Derby. One of them, St. Lite, became the first horse in Japan to win the Triple Crown in 1941.

Offspring of the 20 horses imported 114 years ago are described as “Koiwai maternal originated.” They include Vodka (tracing its bloodline 11 generations back to Florrie’s Cup, a female), which became the first Japanese mare to win the Japan Cup in 2009. Another is Lei Papale (tracing 10 generations back to Florrie’s Cup), which notched a victory in the Osaka Hai (Osaka Cup) Grade 1 race this year. These bloodlines have lasted to this day, and many offspring spice up today’s races in Japan.

This year marks the 130th anniversary of the establishment of Koiwai Farm. But it has no facilities that retain their original form. After the Supreme Commander Allied Powers ordered the liberalization of farmland and a halt to horse racing in 1949, all facilities were relinquished and the horses kept there were transferred to different ranches. What remains to this day are only the bloodlines of the horses. The memories of the people who struggled in that turbulent history are imprinted in the horses’ DNA.

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