Monday, June 24, 2024

‘The Luckiest Moment In My Life’: Yoshida on Sunday Silence

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HOKKAIDO, Japan–In the bloodstock world, the battle for succession does not come down to unseemly squabbles in the boardroom. What matters first is what happens on the track, and even when all goes right there, success in the breeding shed is far from guaranteed.

Smallish in stature but a Goliath in influence and reputation, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer gave the European breeding industry many stars including, crucially, Sadler’s Wells, whose line holds strong predominantly through Galileo (Ire) and his heir apparent, Frankel (GB). Northern Dancer also blessed Japan with an important influence in Northern Taste, bought as a yearling at Saratoga in 1972 by Zenya Yoshida before winning the G1 Prix de la Foret and then establishing a formidable stud career as the most successful stallion Japan had ever seen. Until Sunday Silence came along.

The latter, who inherited the feisty temperament of his sire Halo and was handed far-from-perfect conformation, had a storyline that was as chequered as it is fabled. Sunday Silence famously found little favour with American breeders when he retired from racing, despite having won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness S. and Breeders’ Cup Classic, all the while engaging in a gripping two-season battle with Easy Goer. His part-owner Arthur Hancock III decided, wisely at the time, to quit while he was ahead with the near-black horse who had played a significant part in saving his Stone Farm from bankruptcy. With Sunday Silence already part-owned by Zenya Yoshida, who had bought into him at the end of his three-year-old season, the rest of the stallion was offered for sale to stand in Japan without ever covering a mare in Kentucky. It was very much America’s loss.

Yoshida, whose sons Teruya, Katsumi and Haruya now dominate Japanese racing and breeding, died when members of Sunday Silence’s first crop were still yearlings. Little could he have envisaged the influence the horse would have 30 years later, not just within the Shadai Stallion Station, where 14 of the 32 resident stallions are his male-line descendants, but across Japan and beyond. This year, on the Epsom Downs and the Curragh, his grandson Auguste Rodin (Ire) has given a mighty last shake of the rattle to Sunday Silence’s most powerful son, Deep Impact (Jpn), who died woefully early at just 17, in 2019. Who now will pick up the baton for this line of succession?

Kizuna (Jpn), the second of Deep Impact’s seven winners of the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), started well by becoming the champion first-season sire of 2019, and he is currently sitting in third place in the Japanese sires’ table behind Lord Kanaloa (Jpn) and the late Duramente (Jpn), both of whom are sons of King Kamehameha (Jpn), who himself died just a fortnight after Deep Impact. It is quite clear, however, which horse Teruya Yoshida, head of Shadai Farm, wishes to see take up the mantle. 

“Contrail (Jpn) is coming this year and my first impression is that he could be a very good stallion–maybe Coolmore will start to send their mares again,” he says of the horse who emulated Deep Impact when winning the Japanese Triple Crown in 2020 and was a champion in each of his three seasons on the track, culminating in victory in the Japan Cup. Contrail’s first foals will be on display this Tuesday during the JRHA Select Sale in Hokkaido’s Northern Horse Park. 

His 21 youngsters catalogued include a son of the Argentinean Grade I winner Conviction (Arg) (City Banker {Arg}). The February-born colt, who is lot 360 in the Northern Farm draft, has been issued a reserve price of ¥50,000,000 (approximately £274,000 or €320,000) in a system which is unique to Japan, and which would knock hours off sales in other jurisdictions, whereby the auctioneer opens the bidding at the published reserve. 

Much is made of the turf/dirt debate, but the divide can be slim when it comes to horses acting on the respective surfaces. The ‘dirt horse’ Sunday Silence begat Deep Impact, who raced solely on turf, but rarely on anything easier than firm, and whose dam was the Irish-bred Wind In Her Hair (Alzao), herself only three generations down from Northern Dancer. American influences have long been strong in Japan, and the current flavour of the month, maybe more, is the dirt sprinter Mind Your Biscuits (Posse), who waltzed off with leading freshman honours last year. He is the sire of the wide-margin winner of the G2 UAE Derby, Derma Sotogake (Jpn), who went on to finish sixth in the Kentucky Derby.

“Mind Your Biscuits covered more than 200 mares this year,” says Yoshida. “The really good mares are still going to turf stallions but most of the breeders in Japan with more ordinary mares have a tendency to go to stallions who run on dirt. Most of the races in Japan are performed on dirt, so that’s what the buyers want, and they have a dream to go to Dubai or to the Kentucky Derby.”

He adds, “We keep trying to buy good stallion prospects, not only from America, and sometimes they turn out to be good, but not every time. It’s the same with yearlings.”

A slower burner among the younger stallion brigade in Japan has been Kitasan Black (Jpn). The winner of seven Grade 1 races, from 10 furlongs to two miles, he is a son of Deep Impact’s brother Black Tide (Jpn), who plies his trade at the Breeders Stallion Station. Kitasan Black moved in to the Shadai Stallion Station on his retirement in 2018 and, though not under-subscribed, he wouldn’t have been among the busiest on the roster. However, from his first batch of 84 foals emerged the horse now being ascribed superstar status, Equinox (Jpn), while his second crop contained this year’s Japanese 2,000 Guineas winner and Derby second Sol Oriens (Jpn). His numbers, unsurprisingly, are on the up.

“People are very keen on Kitasan Black,” says Yoshida. “He produces very tough horses, but he wasn’t so popular at the start. Now, from this year, people have started to breed their best mares to him, and he’s a very fertile horse.”

While we already knew that Equinox, currently the top-rated horse in the world, would not be appearing in Europe this season, it is now almost certain that he won’t leave his home nation again, even for the Breeders’ Cup, with the Japan Cup on November 26 his main target before retirement.

Equinox is not alone in avoiding Britain this season. There were no Japanese runners at Royal Ascot, and nor will there be at York and Goodwood. And it’s not just the lower level of prize-money in the UK that is an issue.

European classification of the racing is very correct. If we buy Group 2 or Group 3 mares in Europe, that is their true level.

Yoshida says, “English racing is not easy for us. If Japanese horses go to Europe during the summer when it’s dry then maybe we have a better chance of success, but we have many races in Japan too, so it is not easy to send a horse to Europe to race.”

The expanding racing programme and huge sums of money on offer in the Gulf nations through the winter are already having an effect on the horse population in Europe, and it may well mean that we will see fewer Japanese horses contesting races on the more irregular and often undulating tracks of Britain, Ireland and France. 

“We are racing [on the Flat] all year round, so it is easier for us to send horses to race in the Middle East in February and March,” Yoshida explains. “For European horses it is not so easy as there are not the big races through the winter. Japanese horses like fast ground and level ground. In England, the courses are more natural and it’s not so easy for Japanese horses. In Dubai or Saudi it is more similar to racing in Japan. If we go to Europe we can encounter soft ground or a different way of running.”

One thing that is unlikely to change is the frequency with which Japanese buyers appear at the European sales.

“We are looking for good horses from anywhere in the world and buying the good-quality mares from Europe is very important,” says Yoshida. “European classification of the racing is very correct. If we buy Group 2 or Group 3 mares in Europe, that is their true level. In some other countries we can’t believe in it, but if we buy them in Europe we know that they are good-class horses.”

And it is not only in America that the Yoshida family goes shopping for stallions. Jim and Jackie Bolger’s 2,000 Guineas winner Poetic Flare (Ire) joined the Shadai roster last year and is another with first foals at the forthcoming JRHA Sale. While Harbinger (GB) remains at Shadai, his fellow King George winner Novellist (Ger) has moved to Lex Stud.

Yoshida says, “We had very good success with Tony Bin (Ire), an Italian winner of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Everybody said at the start that he was so-so but he became a very good stallion. We don’t know until we try. That happens with horses. Nobody knows what will happen. Like Wootton Bassett (GB), at the start people didn’t care so much but now that has changed.”

He continues, “Sunday Silence became so good and now he is grandsire of the English Derby winner. It was great for Coolmore to send their best mare to breed to Deep Impact, and then for [Auguste Rodin] to turn out to be so good, and now a stallion prospect.

“I was a bit apprehensive when I saw him walking from the parade ring to the starting gate because he was dancing, and you want mile-and-a-half horses to be relaxed, but he always does it and still he runs well.”

If my father hadn’t bought the farm in Kentucky, this wouldn’t have happened. Economy-wise, it was a big mistake because we lost a lot of money in having that farm, but in the end we got the best investment ever.

Sunday Silence himself did a little more than just dance when he was in training but, still, he ran well. So too did many of his offspring.

“Most of our good runners in Japan now have Sunday Silence blood somewhere,” Yoshida says, and casts his mind back to his own days in the Bluegrass.

“My father bought a farm in Kentucky, and it was very near to Arthur Hancock’s farm. I was there for four or five years and during that time I became a good friend of Arthur. When Sunday Silence appeared I congratulated Arthur and he suggested to me that we should own some of the horse. 

“After that he found that not many people were interested in him as a stallion in America and he asked me to buy the horse. I bought the horse without any hesitation. At the time, $11 million was very expensive, but the Japanese economy was very good and we were able to say yes. It was the luckiest moment in my life.”

He adds, “If my father hadn’t bought the farm in Kentucky, this wouldn’t have happened. Economy-wise, it was a big mistake because we lost a lot of money in having that farm, but in the end we got the best investment ever. Sunday Silence changed Japanese racing.”

And let’s not forget, he arrived just before the end of Northern Taste’s reign in the sires’ championship in Japan, that ran from 1982 to 1992.

“If you look at the history of Kentucky Derby winners, not that many become really good stallions, so I understand why American breeders were cautious,” Yoshida notes. “But at that time we were very innocent in American racing so when they asked us if we wanted to buy the horse, we did it without hesitation. Lucky! Knowing too much is not always good.”

In the quest to continue a line that has become so dominant, Yoshida knows that despite having a number of sons of Deep Impact in the pipeline, not all will light the spark that could ignite a successful second career. 

“Look at Northern Dancer: as stallions, not all of his good sons became successful,” he says. “When I went to Saratoga to buy Northern Taste I didn’t know he would become a Group 1 winner in Europe and that he would become the leading sire in Japan 11 years straight. He was a very inbred horse and I was a little bit worried about that. But he lived a long time, he died when he was almost 30 years old, and he was always a very healthy horse.”

Yoshida adds, “It was just lucky, and that happened in the beginning. Then Sunday Silence came. Then Deep Impact. Maybe Contrail will come next.”


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