Love of the Horse Yields Racing and Breeding Success in Japan

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Equinox, Christophe Lemaire, Tenno Sho, Tokyo Racecourse, Eclipse Sportswire
Equinox under Christophe Lemaire in the post parade for the Tenno Sho (Autumn) in October 2023 before a massive crowd at Tokyo Racecourse. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In talking with breeders at home and abroad about the biggest reasons for his country’s rapid ascension in international stature in recent years, Japan Racing Association executive adviser of international affairs Masayuki Goto often hears that conversation start with Sunday Silence.

He completely understands the sentiment. The United States dual classic winner reached new heights at stud in Japan and his influence continues to resonate. Equinox, the Longines World’s Best Racehorse of 2023, is the second Japan-based Thoroughbred to land that honor and his 135 rating is the highest ever reached for his country. His sire line goes: Kitasan Black, Black Tide, then Sunday Silence.

So Goto fully understands those who think this all traces to Sunday Silence, but, for Goto, the reason goes deeper than that considerable cornerstone. He believes the foundation for Japan’s racing and breeding success is the deep appreciation and admiration for the Thoroughbred in Japan. Goto believes all success has flowed from that passion, a true grass-roots movement.

“Sunday Silence and then Deep Impact and other stallions; they’re what changed breeding in Japan,” Goto said. “But this wouldn’t go on if people didn’t support our racing. Breeders could have never afforded to import horses from abroad without that support.

“Our breeders sometimes like to say that Sunday Silence is epoch [the starting point] for Japan racing. I say, ‘No, it’s not Sunday Silence, it’s our racing fans, our racing supporters.’ That’s very important.”

Japan’s international success in recent years certainly has other countries checking to see what the country is doing right. The 2023 season not only saw two-time Japanese Horse of the Year Equinox claim the title of World’s Best Racehorse, ending a two-year stretch that saw the United States take the title with Knicks Go in 2021 and Flightline in 2022, but Japan also earned the title of World’s Best Race as the team of handicappers awarded that status to the Group 1 Japan Cup, which Equinox won Nov. 26 at Tokyo.

2023 World's Best Racehorse Equinox (World's Best Racehorse/J. Fukuda photo)

The top 25 world rankings saw seven Japan-based runners land spots and the country boasted four of the top eight rated races in the world in 2023. Besides Equinox’s success on turf in Dubai and his home country, on dirt Ushba Tesoro landed the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline and Derma Sotogake won the UAE Derby Sponsored by Atlantic The Royal and finished second in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Japan registered with American fans in 2021 when its horses captured a pair of Breeders’ Cup races as Loves Only You won the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf to land an Eclipse Award as champion turf female while Marche Lorraine scored an upset victory in the Longines Distaff.

Japan’s passion shows itself at the windows where fans wagered more than $23 billion in 2023 — the 12th straight year the country has seen increased handle. Goto, of course, welcomes that betting. He believes much of it goes beyond a gambling proposition and that fans are putting their money on the line to be part of a horse’s team and experience victory together.


How is Japan working to continue to foster that love of horses and racing? Goto said everything begins with integrity. From there, he and other JRA and industry leaders said other keys are continued emphasis on the on-track experience that encourages families to attend, creative ideas on fostering ownership, international competition, and added aftercare options for its Thoroughbreds are some of the initiatives the industry has put in place.

“There are so many important factors for racing. but the most important thing is integrity, integrity, integrity,” Goto said. “Integrity is very important. It’s how to get the [trust] of the public. It’s how to sustain racing in our society. So far our racing, I believe, has strong public support. The most important thing is to keep working on how we keep that public trust, keep integrity.”

Masayuki Goto, left, with Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges (BloodHorse Library/ScoopDyga)

Goto believes so many other efforts — making racing family friendly, equine safety, aftercare, and a path toward increased international participation — can flow from that first point.

Current JRA president and CEO Masayoshi Yoshida said family-friendly venues ensure new generations of racing fans are developed. While there is enthusiastic betting, the tracks also emphasize family options during a day at the races.

“So there’s about 200 million race fans in Japan but It’s not just about betting. It’s about providing a family-friendly atmosphere,” Yoshida said through an interpreter. “Families come to the racecourse to enjoy racing, which helps them to be very connected to racing in general — not just the betting. That really links the fans, connects them to the horses.

“We want people to come with their families, their friends, so that they can have fun together watching the important races. It’s even a little different from British racing where a lot of people come out for a social event. We have heavily engaged fans.”

Yoshida said that early development of an appreciation of the horse makes Japan’s impressive handle numbers possible. (Pari-mutuel wagering on United States racing totaled $11.66 billion in 2023, down 3.7% from $12.1 billion in 2022.)


One of the more creative ventures Japan has offered for a number of years is large racing partnerships associated with horses bred by the country’s top farms. That was the case with Equinox, who was campaigned by Silk Racing Club, which is closely associated with Northern Farm. Shingo Hashimoto, manager of international affairs for Northern Farm, outlined how this club works.

Each August, Silk Racing announces a draft of yearlings that typically totals about 80. Then 500 shares in each of those horses is offered and club members can choose which horses they wish to have shares of, up to five shares. If a horse has more than 500 applications, 300 will be shared with the members who had more investments in the past three years and the remaining 200 shares will be awarded based on the outcome of a lottery.

This approach allows owners to share in some of Japan’s elite runners.

“Silk Horse Club has a motto of putting value on three prospects of joy: the joy of sharing a partnership, the joy of following the growth of their horse, and the joy that the horse connects amongst the fellowships,” Hashimoto said. “Equinox was a special horse since not only did he realize all three mottos of Silks Horse Club, but in a very attractive way.”

Masashi Yonemoto, CEO of Silk Racing, has seen first-hand the connection this ownership approach builds.

Equinox retirement ceremony at Nakayama Race Course. (Katsumi Saito photo)

“Yes, it does help people connect. On the website they post every detail about what the horse is doing from the time they’re a yearling until they begin early training at 2 years old,” Yonemoto said. “Every aspect is reported to the people who are members and they truly love the horses and enjoy following along.”

Hashimoto said members then help spread the news about the horses and their personalities. He said stories continued to flow even after Equinox was honored Dec. 16 at Nakayama Racetrack following his racing career.

“Equinox is always a very smart and wise horse who stays calm in his stall but gets fired up once he goes to the racetrack for a race,” Hashimoto said. “When he had his retirement ceremony at Nakayama Racetrack Dec. 16, when he first started to walk he was just as fired up as he gets at the racetrack, but once he understood that it wasn’t a raceday — since he didn’t get saddled — he just simply got back to his normal temperament and was ready for all the photos to be taken.”

“You can tell by the photos taken how calm he is and that’s how amazing he is.”


Goto believes international racing pushes all competitors to new heights but he said consistent racing rules are critical for Japan to participate. He said such consistency is needed for fairness of competition and so that Japan’s fans understand the rules.

“Competition is deemed essential for improving quality and standards. It is expected that, in the pursuit of best practice, racing countries and regions will engage in healthy competition, inspiring each other to aim for better models,” Goto said. “This collaborative effort, striving for improvement, is anticipated to play an increasingly crucial role in the international development of horse racing in the future.”

He applauded the United States efforts through the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to bring one set of rules throughout America.

“Because the history or process of racing is not the same, it’s different country by country, so it’s very tough to get the same regulation around some countries,” Goto said. “In [England], they have over 300 years of racing. In Japan we have only 80 or 90. So in that comparison, [Japan] is still very new. So, it is not easy to coordinate country by country where the rules are not the same. For instance, in Japan we have [regulations on betting and control of signals, to prevent any criminal role.]

“So many countries now participate in the world pool but in Japan we cannot do it because of these restrictions. If they want to make progress in the world pool, they have to promulgate the same rules of racing on scratches, disqualifications, inquiries — all the racing rules. Our racing fans cannot understand other country’s rules.”

Yoshida would like to see more international runners compete in Japan, in races such as the Japan Cup. He noted it would reward the country’s passionate fans.

“We would like to have more international racing in Japan — would have liked to have seen them against Equinox in Japan,” Yoshida said. “We would like to see the best horses from around the world come compete with the best Japanese horses. We want more Japanese fans to watch the high level of racing that international runners bring.”

Considering the run of success is enjoying, any level of interaction with that grassroots passion can only benefit racing around the world.

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