Where the finest get on the fast track


Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a horse.

Not a police horse, head slung low as you march across the unforgiving asphalt, or a four-legged laborer at some local riding club where stalls are rarely cleaned. No, you are a sleek young racehorse with a list of victories to your good name. In your stellar career, you've already won your owners hundreds of millions of yen in prize money. Why, you're probably the Derby favorite this year.

With a record like that, chances are you've spent time at the luxurious Miho Training Center in Ibaraki Prefecture -- at more than 2 sq. km, Japan's largest training facility for racehorses and the proving grounds for some of the country's, and the world's, finest steeds. Every aspect of Miho is designed with the welfare of the animals in mind. All pretending aside, this is the kind of place most horses could only dream of.

For example, the eight training courses are given extra bounce to reduce wear and tear on horses' legs. At Miho's periphery, recorded birdsong warbles forth from speakers along a verdant walking path -- tapes are even switched to match the season. Parched horses can quench their thirst at a scenic waterfall nearby. Aside from the rolling pastures of Hokkaido, where the vast majority of Japanese racehorses are bred, this is as close to equine heaven as it gets.

"It's definitely the best I've ever worked at," said Lisa Mumby, 26, a New Zealand jockey who has herself trained and ridden throughout Asia. "They look after the horse and treat it like an animal with feelings."

For a long time, Japanese racehorses lived at the tracks, a custom still common in many racing countries. But things didn't work out. Urbanization in the postwar era brought humans and horses uncomfortably close as residential communities sprang up near the tracks, said Kiyohito Terauchi, a spokesman for the state-affiliated Japan Racing Association, the agency that oversees Miho. Each side considered the other something of a nuisance. Pollution from cars and buses bothered the sensitive horses. And noble though they may be, horses aren't particularly fragrant animals. Terauchi puts it more bluntly. "Stink became an issue."

Breathing space

So the JRA built two enormous training complexes -- "in the middle of nowhere," as Terauchi says -- where horses from around the country would be sent to train before races at the 10 JRA tracks across Japan. The first center was constructed in 1969 in the western city of Ritto, near Kyoto, and the larger one at Miho went up in 1978. The relocation gave horses more breathing space, and the centralized operations made it easier for the JRA to monitor training and hygiene.

Today, Miho and Ritto each house about 2,000 horses at any given time and are considered roughly equal in terms of training. Mostly owned by wealthy individuals or racing clubs, the average horse costs around 10 million yen, but here and there are champions worth as much as 20 times more.

Newer features at Miho, like the 60-meter indoor swimming pool added in 1991, allow even injured horses to stay fit in style. And if, after a dip, winter winds cast a chill, it's no problem. Horses dry off under a hot-air fan before returning to their stalls. Occasionally a bather -- muzzle poking above the water's surface, legs paddling furiously below -- will panic with hydrophobia, so to calm horses and help prevent drowning, soothing Baroque music is played over the P.A. system.

Horses with serious injuries or illnesses, of course, require inpatient care, and the hospital that serves them bears comparison with any for humans. Everything here, however, is on a much larger scale. A grown man can fit his forearm into one of the equine nebulizer masks, and you could park a forklift on the X-ray platform.

Miho horses are coddled even in the hereafter. At a picturesque grove between racing tracks, horse-lovers place oats, carrots and sugar before a shrine honoring the souls of late contenders. Among the names inscribed on a cluster of funerary tablets: Silk Rapture, Future Heroine and Epsom Mambo -- who must have made beautiful music on the track.

No matter how impressive the amenities at Miho, any of the 5,000 people who work there will tell you the real key to raising a good horse is to understand its character, to become its friend.

"We watch whether the horse is timid or if it adjusts well. And whether we can push it hard in training," says up-and-coming trainer Nobuhiro Suzuki. "It's just like training a human athlete."

Building the relationship is a round-the-clock job shared between the trainer, his staff and the jockey. Late sleepers needn't apply. The workday starts as early as 3 a.m. in summer, when grooms check horses' joints for injury, take body temperatures and fork out soiled straw from each stall. Assistant trainers and jockeys then mount their charges, warm up, and by 5 a.m. they're heading for some runs up the inclined training slope.

After that it's time for the day's climax, power sprints down at the main track to build muscle and endurance. This is where colts and fillies with star quality get to show it off. Manes flapping like battle standards, jockeys crouched atop them, packs of horses tear up the dirt toward the finish line as trainers peer through binoculars from the bleachers. Sports reporters jot down running times that, hours later, fill the sports papers. In the afternoon, there's more training, watering at 8 p.m. and then it's quitting time.

Hazards of the trade

Not a bad life, considering all the fresh air and exercise. But working with horses has its disadvantages, chief among them the danger of handling an animal that weighs 450 kg, about nine times more than the average jockey. A wise groom learns how to dodge a "love bite" or a potentially lethal hind-leg kick. Jockeys, meanwhile, try to block out thoughts of being thrown during a race and trampled underhoof.

"Sometimes you're in town and you hear an ambulance go by. You can bet it's headed to the training center," said Hiroki Hashimoto, a 30-year-old jockey who himself has felt the force of more than a few hooves.

But such hazards are just part of the trade, and the folks at Miho prefer to look on the brighter side of the relationship between human and beast. "Horses and people work together. We make money together," said Hashimoto. "It's thanks to horses that people like us can make a living."

The Japan Times: May 12, 2002
(C) All rights reserved

This story originally appeared in a Japan Times package on horse racing:


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