TOKYO — I came to watch Japan's top racehorses, arguably the strongest in the world, contest last Sunday's Japan Cup, worth more than $5 million. I left believing that the reason the Japanese racing industry is so much healthier and more popular than any of its counterparts is about much more than the quality of the horses. It's the system. I've spent years covering the dysfunction of American racing, and the Japanese version is its antithesis: centralized, strictly controlled, and presumably—almost unbelievably, to any veteran turf writer—upright.
Nothing happens outside the purview of the Japan Racing Association, a public company (answering to Japan's cabinet-level Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) in charge of the country's biggest tracks, betting parlors, and training centers, and the licensing of jockeys, trainers, owners, even veterinarians. Not even a single American reporter makes it to the Japan Cup without having his every move micromanaged by some of the JRA's many staffers.
In the summer of 2013, I had met several officials at a conference in Saratoga Springs and, that fall, wrote about the Japanese sensation Orfevre, twice a bridesmaid in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Europe's biggest prize. The JRA's invitation to cover last Sunday's Japan Cup claimed I was an "influential journalist" and that Mr. Ikee, the trainer of Orfevre whom I had interviewed via a translator, was "very pleased" with the story.
The following months introduced me to the layers of the JRA. My primary contact was the friendly Ryo Mitsuhashi, an employee in their New York office, actually located in Stamford, Connecticut. Every email copied at least two other officials, none of whom I knew or had ever spoken with. One month before the race, an official from Japan began writing me. An affiliated travel agent coordinated my flight.
Two weeks before my departure, I asked for an interview with Katsumi Yoshida, who, with his brothers Teruya and Haruya, have a stranglehold on breeding and owning horses in Japan. The stories of their family and of the upswing of Japanese racing are indivisible. An altogether different official wrote me on the eve of my flight to say that the request had been granted. There's no way that request hadn't been run to the top of the JRA.
I felt a little peculiar about all the personal attention—This type of doting on a foreign reporter is unheard of in American racing, and since the JRA was paying for my travel and hotel, I did wonder what expectations for my reporting, if any, came along with it.
When I arrived into Narita airport on a Tuesday night, a JRA employee was waiting for me. He handed me a ticket for the bus to my hotel, led me the 50 feet to the bus, and then was gone.
The next morning, a dozen foreign reporters, half of them Aussies, gathered in the lobby of the Keio Plaza Hotel, in the high-rise Shinjuku district of Tokyo. I met my personal ambassador of sorts, a shy, tall, reed-thin, well-dressed young staffer named Keigo Yamashita. His boss held a binder with head shots of the reporters. Yamashita, employed in the International Department, told me in hesitant English that he would escort me to Miho Training Center, in the countryside outside Tokyo, the following day. But first, a trip to Tokyo Racecourse.
The Japan Cup, an invitational, 2,400-meter turf race, was created in 1981 with two goals: to open Japanese racing to outsiders, and to see where the local horses stood against the best from Europe and the United States. By this year's 34th running, the latter ploy has been the more successful. American horses won the first two, and continued coming over with hot chances throughout the 1990s, and several European horses have won, but over the last decade the pendulum has fully swung toward the Japanese. The last truly good American horse to run in the Japan Cup was Better Talk Now, who finished 12th in 2005, which also happened to be the last time the race was won by a horse based outside Japan.
There are few foreign takers anymore. Just three of this year's 18-horse field were international: a Canadian, a German, and an Irish horse. The JRA is so desperate to make it an international affair and test the quality of their horses, as if Japanese horses weren't already on the map, that it tries to entice the best from abroad with purse bonuses of $200,000, $320,000, and $800,000 for the third-, second-, and first-place finishers if they already won a major international race from a pre-selected list in 2014.
The timing isn't ideal for the best non-Japanese runners: the Japan Cup falls four weeks after the Breeders' Cup, and two weeks before Hong Kong's international races. But the Japanese horses tend to win no matter the level of competition Japan Cup favorites Gentildonna and Just a Way proved that in March by beating the best from around the world in Dubai's two major turf races, the Sheema Classic and Duty Free, respectively. Over the last 15 years, Japanese horses have won 29 Group 1 races outside the country, including elite races in France, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai, and the U.S. Gentildonna, a national idol here, had won the last two Japan Cups entering this year's running, each time making history– the first three-year-old filly to win it and then the first horse of any age or gender to repeat.
Our JRA hosts led us to a bus that would take us to Tokyo Racecourse, in a quiet western part of the city. Throughout the week, staffers would ask me about the Canadian horse, a rank outsider named Up With the Birds. When I told them I had instead come to try to learn how Japanese horses had become world-beaters, they seemed puzzled at this, though flattered.
The tracks at Miho training center. (Photo by author.)
When we arrived, the barn area was deserted – except for the three foreign horses. Races at the country's 10 JRA-run courses are held on weekends (there is a second-tier circuit, which is organized by local governments and races on weekdays), and so horses only arrive at the track from the training center the night before the race. None of us were going to get a glimpse of Gentildonna. I asked several of our assigned hosts about arranging interviews with her trainer, or the trainers of the other elites. I was told with a smile and nod that they would look into it. I had been there long enough to recognize the polite "that's not going to happen" when I heard it.
Three dozen Japanese photographers lined viewing stands in front of the grandstand, as we approached the track to watch the foreign horses gallop. They snapped away, even though there was little to see. One French photographer was angry that he was not allowed onto the edge of the course for a better shot. "I can't do my job," he told me. "They said something about quarantine," as if the horses still weren't allowed to have outside contact. Ultimately, he and others ducked the rail.
Ryo Mitsuhashi, my original contact from New York, arrived to say hello. He had been sleeping in a dormitory at the racecourse along with the exercise rider and groom of Up With the Birds. As the only horse falling within their North American jurisdiction, this was his responsibility. Mitsuhashi introduced me to the general manager of the American office, Atsushi Koya, who was copied on those many email chains. Koya had been a steward for the JRA, and then received a transfer to New York, where they are asked to recruit North American horses to come to Japan. It occurred to me that the JRA—with offices in Paris, London, Hong Kong and, until recently, Sydney—can be a lot like the Foreign Service. Especially since hires get no say in where they're stationed.
During an uneventful press conference with the foreign horses' connections, I scanned the media guide and noticed that only one trainer had more than one horse in the race, a major change from all the big races in Europe and America, where a select few trainers monopolize the good horses. And I realized that nearly all of the Japanese trainers had only first received their licenses well into their forties. Sei Ishizaka, the trainer of Gentildonna, got his at 46. Here, I thought, were some startling and perhaps telling differences about Japanese racing.
I later caught up with Malcolm Pierce, the Ontario-based trainer of Up With the Birds. He, too, had been through the JRA wringer. Up With the Birds had arrived a week and half earlier, residing at the isolated Miho Training Center before being moved to the racecourse. Pierce had been required to tell the JRA what feed his horse ate, and the types of bandages, ointments, and blankets he used. His groom and exercise rider were not allowed to bring anything to the horse. Whatever he needed would be provided.
Pierce's staff were told that they were not allowed to bet, even the weekend before the Japan Cup. The same went for Pierce, who said he doesn't bet anyway. By nine o'clock the night before the race, Up With the Birds' jockey, Eurico da Silva, would have to go into lockdown mode. He could not use a phone or log onto a computer, to say nothing of leaving his hotel room.
These conditions apply to Japanese stables and riders, all of the time, before every race. At least da Silva could relax in his hotel; Japanese jockeys must sleep in dormitories at the racecourse the night before riding.
The sheer amount of money wagered on Japanese racing is so great that maintaining a clean sport is as much a commercial consideration as an ethical one. In 2013, the JRA put on 288 race days. The betting turnover on all Japanese racing, most of it handled by the JRA, was about $30 billion last year. That's roughly triple the amount wagered on American races, despite American tracks running three times as many races and the U.S. having three times the population of Japan. Even though racing's popularity has declined slightly since 2000 in Japan, the country is still mad about it: about 21 percent of all bets around the globe are taken here.
Deep Impact, a local legend. (Photo by author.)
It's not just about the gambling. At Shinkuju Station, the busiest in Tokyo, a huge display promoted the race, featuring a plastic likeness of Deep Impact, the 2006 winner and one of the best Japanese racehorses. At the track, I saw fans wearing hats embossed with the names of their favorite horses, and I watched many of them cry out for the autographs of jockeys as if they were pop stars. In bars and restaurants I often overheard people mention Gentildonna. That translated fine.
But it's the money keeps the sport healthy. The JRA draws its budget from this betting turnover. In 2013, it sent nine percent to the government in tax, 75 percent back to bettors, five percent went to purses and 11 percent to its operations.
"They don't want anything to jeopardize that," Pierce said. You could not paint a starker comparison to American racing, where each state handles its own affairs, and none even half as strictly as the whole of Japan. Drugs are legal on race day in American racing, whereas Japan is ostensibly completely free of them. Forget lockdown the night before the races. Although jockeys in the U.S. are not allowed to bet, I've seen more than a few find a way. There's nothing prohibiting trainers and their stable staffs from betting. American racing, with so many people trading on insider knowledge, is like Wall Street without the Securities and Exchange Commission. In Japan, it felt like to me, you could make a bet without thinking you were up against it.
At 6:30 the next morning, a wide-awake Keigo Yamashita met me in the hotel lobby. I assumed a group was going to Miho Training Center, but it was to be just the two of us. He apologized that we could not drive there. He didn't own a car, he said apologetically. Instead, we would take a taxi to a train station, and after a 45-minute ride, flag another taxi to Miho. It would be about two hours, all told.
Miho, in the countryside outside Tokyo, and Ritto Training Center, its counterpart near Osaka, are often touted by the JRA as main reasons for the country's success. Some 4,000 horses, all of them monitored by the JRA, have every type of facility and track surface and medical necessities at hand. Ritto was opened in 1969, and Miho in 1978, to get horses out of the racecourses located within rapidly expanding cities.
"This trip brings back a lot of memories," Yamashita said quietly. The trip to Miho was a homecoming for him. He worked in the office there for first first two years with the JRA before being transferred to his current position—in the International Planning Division of the International Department—for the last four. He called the transfer a "dream come true."
Yamashita grew up in a rural village in Fukui prefecture, on the west coast of Japan, about a six-hour drive from Tokyo. There were no racecourses nearby, but his family kept four riding horses at home. After leaving for the big city to study law at Keio University, he attempted to join the JRA. He went through five rounds of interviews, he told me, and also had to pass an exam testing "common sense and personality." Each year, just 30 new people are hired. The JRA employs 2,000 people in total, Yamashita said, half of those are at their office in Tokyo, and the other half stationed at racecourses, training centers, and the other offices in Japan and the globe. He refers to the JRA as, simply, "the company."
Despite the bureaucratic goliath—maybe because of it—the whole system runs rather logically and efficiently. The best races are run weekends, and the lesser ones of the NAR – the minor leagues – are run weekdays. Two or three JRA racecourses are open at a time, and stay open for meets of either four or eight weeks. Normal weekend crowds might average 60,000; the big races, like the Japanese Derby or Japan Cup, see double that.
We drove around Miho in an eight-seater van, with Yamashita pointing out utilitarian apartment buildings, with laundry hanging from clotheslines on balconies, where jockeys, trainers, their staff, and JRA employees live. Even journalists are provided with dormitory housing if they want to stay there overnight.
A brochure Yamashita gave me boasted of a medical center, supermarket, baseball field, tennis courts, and compost plant. "The people working at the Miho Training Center and their families, numbering about 5,000 people, lead comfortable lives at the Miho Training Center," the brochure read. Yamashita said that some trainers occasionally complain that their apartments become too cold or need renovating. "The staff say they should fix it themselves," he said with a laugh.
If Miho is a self-contained city, it's because it's designed to minimize contact with the outside world. Back home, I can walk into any backstretch with a friendly wave. At Mountaineer Park, in West Virginia, I once walked past empty security posts while filming an undercover investigation on its horse slaughter pipeline. Not an option here. Security was tight. We were saluted by one of the guards as we entered.
Everything that happens here happens under central oversight. It has been well documented in the U.S. how private vets answer to the trainers—prescribing medications is how they get paid. In Japan, if a horse has a problem, his trainer must call a JRA-employed veterinarian.
Similarly strict standards apply to jockeys and trainers. Jockeys must attend riding school for three years and then pass an exam. Trainers, too, get a formal education before being allowed to apply for a license. Now I understood why all of those in the media guide seemingly started late in life—they had gotten started as soon as they were deemed able. The license examination is held once a year, in February, and although between 100 and 150 regularly take it, only five or six pass. "It's so difficult, so difficult," Yamashita said. "I think even 40 is young."
Trainers thus ply their trade as assistants for a decade or two. Even after opening their stables, they are not allowed more than 70 horses but only 28 stalls at the training center, meaning they often move horses around from pre-training farms to the center a few weeks before a race. Given all these restrictions, the prospect of large numbers of foreigners riding or training in Japan, despite the incredible prize money, is hard to see.
We visited the amenities for the horses: swimming pool, water treadmill, hospital, a forest with trails and a waterfall, two training ovals with different courses, and a steep slope course specifically designed for developing endurance. Inside a fluorescent-lit room on the top floor of a six-story tower next to the slope course, five stone-faced men monitored four rows of eight flat-screen TVs with live feeds from around the center. The whole facility, right down to the barns, was as functional as it was unattractive.
A horse emerges from the swimming pool at Miho. (Photo by author.)
Yamashita often apologized for not speaking better English, and sometimes pulled out his phone to translate something. But as the morning wore on, he seemed more at ease. At the swimming pool, as a horse labored through the water, Yamashita turned to me with the brochure open. "It says here this is relaxing for the horse," he cracked, "but it looks tough to me."
As our tour finished up, he thanked me for being friendly. "I was very nervous," he admitted. I laughed. He obviously knew turf writers, a socially awkward and sometimes outright-offensive lot. The night before, I had watched an English television pundit berate one of the JRA employees for not knowing the way to our restaurant. One voluble, chain-smoking German reporter with a villainous laugh constantly cornered two female JRA employees assigned to our group. "The women here are as clean as the city," I heard him say.
When we got back to Tokyo, Yamashita rushed to the office to prepare for a formal party that night, at which he manned the welcome table. JRA bigwigs wore tags with their names and positions, but they were the exception. Most of the staff wore tags that read only: JRA. As anonymous as always, they are the engine that powers the most successful racing in the world. Near the end of the banquet, as a world-class violinist played inside the ballroom, I found Yamashita outside. He was still on the clock.
"You need a break, Keigo, and a drink," I told him.
"After Sunday," he said sincerely.
Ryan Goldberg is an award-winning freelance journalist and has been following horse racing since ducking security as a teenager to bet the races at Monmouth Park. He lives in Brooklyn and his past articles can be found at ryangoldberg.net.
Top photo courtesy of the JRA.