MEET DEIRDRE: JAPAN’S FASTEST EXPORT

She took Glorious Goodwood by a length and galloped her way into the hearts of international horse-racing fans the world over. Gershon Portnoi found out how Deirdre won the race to cement Japanese and British sporting relations

The sun is shining on the Sussex countryside as you take a sip of your Mirabeau Rosé, and watch the beautiful sight of thoroughbred horses galloping in the distance. As the sound of thundering hooves moves closer, the excited roar of anticipation fills the air around you, and all eyes are focused on the closing stages of one of the biggest races of the year.

This is Goodwood. This is a quintessentially British highlight of the summer. But this is also a slice of history and, unusually, a part of Goodwood is about to become Japanese.

With only a couple of furlongs left in the highly prestigious 2019 Group One Qatar Nassau Stakes, Frankie Dettori’s mount Mehdaayih is seemingly in control of the race.

But one of Dettori’s rivals Oisin Murphy, and Deirdre, a Japanese thoroughbred mare debuting at Goodwood, have other ideas. Spotting a gap on the inside, Deirdre gallops through, making Dettori and Mehdaayih look as if they’re going backwards. Then, in what seems like a blink of an eye, Deirdre passes the post to become the first ever Japanese winner at Goodwood, an institution of British racing.

Deirdre went off at 20/1. Panama hats are in the air. Glasses are clinked in celebration. People are laughing – and some are crying. Somewhere in the cacophony of joyous noise, three Japanese men hug each other, as the tears roll down their cheeks.

“It was unforgettable. Every time we say the name Glorious Goodwood – it was literally glorious. A glorious experience for us all”

“I still think back to that day, once or twice a week,” says assistant trainer Yoshitake Hashida, the son of renowned Japanese trainer Mitsuru Hashida and one of the men in the hugging trio. “It was unforgettable. Every time we say the name Glorious Goodwood – it was literally glorious. A glorious experience for us.”

To put this into context, this was the first time a Japanese-trained horse had won a Group One race in Britain for 19 years – despite 13 previous attempts to do so.

Horse racing is hugely popular in Japan, but the conditions are very different. This makes it a far harder challenge for a Japanese horse born and foaled in the country – such as Deirdre – to succeed in Britain. Typical Japanese racetracks are flat, and the ground is dry. In Britain, while there are some courses that may facilitate a similar environment, many offer undulating terrain and, given the climate, are rarely dry.

This makes Deirdre’s success all the more stunning and it changed the perception of what Japanese horses were capable of in Britain and beyond. “Not only did we win, but we finally showed a real performance to the British people,” says Hashida. “We had a gala party after the race, it was phenomenal. It was very emotional.

“We were happy to be welcomed to British racing but now we were no longer on the edge – we came to the centre and felt like we belonged. It’s like a dream for us.”

Owner Toji Morita’s spokesperson (and grandson) Kazutoyo Morita was another of those three men celebrating that day, also overwhelmed by Deirdre’s triumph at Goodwood.

“I will always remember being celebrated by many people who genuinely love racehorses in the UK,” he says. “Having a wonder mare like Deirdre and taking challenges with her makes life so much more enjoyable and meaningful.”

Deirdre is the offspring of Harbinger, a former Group One winner bred and raced in Britain who currently stands as a stallion in Japan. Owned by Morita, and trained by Hashida’s father Mitsuru, Deirdre had already won a Group One race in Japan before the decision was taken to bring her to the UK to train at Newmarket, last year.

Dierdre with groom Yuta Komiyama

In Britain, the Japanese Racing Association has built two dedicated training centres, Miho and Ritto, which is where all racehorses are schooled. The luxury facilities include indoor swimming pools and mechanical trainers, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare the thoroughbreds for the rigours of racing in Britain.

With Newmarket offering the exact kind of conditions that horses like Deirdre would need to become accustomed to in order to have any chance of success, it was decided it would be the perfect base for her.

“We initially came to Newmarket because we wanted to win a Group One overseas race, especially in the UK because it’s where horse racing originated, and everyone dreams about winning a Group One race over there,” explains Hashida.

Those dreams go back a long way. Horse racing’s stature in Japan is great, and started as early as the eighth century, when races were held in the Imperial Court. But, Western-style racing arrived in the country in 1862, when British expats established The Yokohama Race Club.

Nowadays, the sport attracts a large cross-section of society with families attending races, as well as seasoned racegoers, who obsessively follow their favourite horses. One of the world’s largest stadia is Tokyo’s Fuchu racecourse, which hosts more than 200,000 spectators every year for the country’s most famous race, the Japan Cup.

When Hashida talks about these dreams, he’s not kidding. Deirdre’s victory was front-page news, described as Kaikyo, which means ‘historical accomplishment’ in Japanese, and the celebrations across the country could be seen as an amplification for the scenes at Goodwood.

One of the industry officials who was hugely influential in bringing Deirdre to the UK, was Edward Veale of the International Racing Bureau (IRB). “We had seen Deirdre running in Meydan and were very aware of her high-level performances in Japan and Hong Kong,” Veale explains. And so the IRB helped bring Deirdre to Newmarket.

The result was so spectacular that Deirdre has been based in the Suffolk racing town again for the 2020 season, despite restrictions and the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unprecedented, this is the first time an Asian racehorse has returned to train and race in the UK for a second year.

Hashida is certain that the warm welcome Team Deirdre received at Newmarket was a huge factor in this. “People like Jane Chapple-Hyam were massive, like a teacher and a host family for us. We thought the horse could get used to training in England, and then we’d have a better chance of winning there,” he explains.

But the nature of English racecourses meant that it wasn’t plain sailing for Deirdre when she first arrived. “Before Royal Ascot we had some difficulty,” says Hashida. “We tried the Longhill and it didn’t look difficult to climb, but in terms of undulations and curves, we didn’t expect her to have such soreness after galloping. These kinds of things were totally different for her.”

However, the support and advice Team Deirdre received from being based at Newmarket, meant that the mare was able to become acclimatised to racing in Britain quickly, and her eventual triumph at Goodwood was the spark that triggered an extraordinary 2019 for Japanese racing.

“It was a remarkable year for Japan because we had eight horses winning overseas Group One races, which was the most in history,” says Hashida. “Obviously many people felt that if Deirdre did it, then maybe they can also win in other countries. Not only did we win, but these figures show that the Deirdre win encouraged Japanese fans and the industry. It really changed racing history.”

“Deirdre is the flagbearer for international horse racing and stands as a defining moment in the relationship between Japanese and British racing”

This is a view that’s fully supported by Veale: “The victories in Australia, Hong Kong and most recently Saudi Arabia, have undoubtedly ensured Japan are now at the forefront of the global game,” he says. “Deirdre, at least in eyes of the UK media, appears as the flagbearer for this international surge, and her victory in the Nassau will hopefully stand as a defining moment in Japan and Britain’s racing relationship.”

Nobu Furuta, of the Japanese Racing Association, confirms this sentiment: “It was definitely a historic moment,” he says. “To be honest, personally I did not think that any Japanese horse could win at Goodwood when I first saw the unique course. It is so different from our tracks. Now, it’s natural that more owners and trainers would see UK races as their targets.

“The truth is, horse racing is horse racing – a daughter of Harbinger has won a Group One in Japan and a Group One in Britain. She has performed across the world.”

So, it’s entirely possible that the extraordinary scenes at Goodwood last year could be replicated in the future, and perhaps could happen so often that they may not seem so epoch-defining.

“Maybe we can be the earthquake,” says Hashida. “The relationship between Japan and the UK feels closer and closer, so maybe more Japanese are going to buy UK horses, and maybe UK people will be interested in Japanese pedigrees if we keep being successful.”

It seems that Deirdre’s success is likely to lead to an increased Japanese presence in British racing, with Morita adding that “there may be more interest in the environment of Newmarket among the Japanese horsemen.”

Deirdre preparing for a morning’s work in Newmarket; Deirdre on the gallops; A team effort – Deirdre’s delighted connections after the Nassau, including grandson of owner, Kazutoyo Morita, trainer Mitsuru Hashida,and the IRB’s Edward Veale

Amanda Prior, General Manager of GBRI (Great British Racing International), the international marketing body for British racing, is equally enthusiastic: “Deirdre’s impact has stretched far beyond just her Nassau victory.

“She has been trained in Newmarket, the home of British racing, since early last summer, and has thus been a constant source of international interest in the town’s goings-on.

“It would be wonderful to see this trend of international horses spending a stint in Britain continue, and specifically more Japanese trainers using Newmarket as a base for targeting big European races.”

If 2019 was big for Deirdre and Japan, there’s every chance there will be a repeat of this success in the future.

“Our final aim in this great journey will probably be the Arc,” says Hashida, referencing the great French race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

“We have to face another queen – Enable – and we have to be well prepared. The Arc is obviously every Japanese owner, trainer or rider’s dream, but nobody has ever achieved this dream in our history of racing.”

Destiny looms large on the horizon of Newmarket’s gallops. Deirdre and her team are committed to the UK’s premier equestrian town for another season, despite the uncertain landscape offered for sport in a post-Covid landscape.

Deirdre’s team’s fortune in racing remains to be seen, too, yet they are lengths ahead in securing a legacy as one of Japanese sport’s finest – and fastest – contemporary exports.

What is guaranteed between British and Japanese horse racing, however, is a continued relationship based on the exchange of culture, knowledge, talent and respect, as well as, hopefully, success.

Visit Great British Racing International to find out more about getting involved with British horse racing: greatbritishracinginternational.com


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