Delta Blues and Pop Rock. Almost all Australians will recognise these as the names of the two Japanese horses that burst from obscurity to take first and second places in the 2006 Melbourne Cup. And they might well have done it again this year if it had not been for the Equine Influenza outbreak that has wreaked havoc on the racing industry in Australia.
What is not common knowledge is that both horses are from Hokkaido – born and bred within a stone’s throw of Chitose Airport, itself now widely known as the gateway to Niseko and the world’s best powder snow. The world’s best powder snow and the world’s best horses are an unlikely mix, but the fact that they exist side by side throws just one more fascinating spotlight on Japan’s amazing north island.
Hokkaido is home to approximately 25,000 thoroughbred horses, with around 7000 new foals born each year. They arrive from mid-January through till early spring, entering a cold, white world that some say starts the toughening up process which makes them magnificent racing ’machines’.
The thoroughbred industry is concentrated in the Hidaka region, chosen by the Japanese government in the late 19th century essentially to provide horses for Japan’s then rapidly growing Imperial Army. Hokkaido in those days was largely unpopulated, and incentives were given to farmers from depressed rural areas of mainland Japan to populate, produce, and protect the island from possible foreign invasion.
Over the years, as the machinery of war evolved, so too did the horse industry, passing through a predominantly Arab breeding (and racing) era to become a thoroughbred producer that today aspires to overtake America’s Kentucky, the UK’s Newmarket, France’s Chantilly and Australia’s own Hunter Valley as the world’s leading racehorse breeding and training ground.
In addition to the Melbourne Cup, Japanese horses have now won major races in the UK, come close in France and the USA, and regularly perform well on the Asian racing circuit in Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao. Owners and trainers from neighbouring Asian countries are now regulars at Japan’s top thoroughbred sales.
Hidaka is a long, narrow strip of land that hugs the east coast of the island for a distance of around 200 kilometres, from just near Chitose (about 90 minutes drive east of Niseko) at the lower end, to Cape Erimo. The whole area is a series of parallel fertile river valleys, lush and green for most of the year, and protected to a considerable extent from the deep snows that characterise the western side of the island in winter.
Niseko, Furano and other well known ski areas to the west bear the brunt of the snowy Siberian weather influences, leaving Hidaka cold, but relatively free of snow in the shadow of the island’s mountain spine. Rarely does the snow settle to a depth of more than 30 or 40 centimetres, but even that is enough to force training indoors – into enormous circular roofed and fully enclosed tracks that dot the landscape like giant donuts.
The horses spend most of the long winter rugged and inside their stables, emerging only to exercise in covered walking machines and the indoor training centres, and occasionally to spend a few hours in small outdoor ‘sunshine paddock’ pens when the weather permits. It’s an unusual pattern, but none can doubt its effectiveness.
In every season of the year, Hidaka, with its picturesque Kentucky style barns, brilliant indoor training facilities and beautiful, elegant horses, is a great place to visit. It is also very easily accessible, the locals – and their horses – are friendly, and its seafood is sought after in gourmet markets and restaurants renowned the length and breadth of Japan.