Ben Hills, Herald Correspondent

Shizunai, Friday: Last November, as the first snow fell on this little fishing town, Mr Kazuo Nishimura stroked the flank of his chestnut mare Darugo Star for the last time and watched her led away to the horse float.

“It was a middleman who took her,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to her after that.” But you only have to look at his face – Mr Nishimura’s eyes are brimming with tears.

He knows it is more than likely that Darugo Star finished up as someone’s dinner.

Horseracing has crashed after the boom of the 1980s and, with the arrival of competition from Australia and New Zealand, this is where it is hurting most.

These rolling hills that make up the Hidaka region of Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido, are Asia’s equivalent of Kentucky, with Dutch-gable barns and white fences around paddocks where glossy thoroughbreds gambol in the snow.

Eighty per cent of Japan’s racehorses are born and bred here. Mr Nishimura is one of the 1,500 registered breeders.

By American or Australian standards, these are tiny spreads. Mr Nishimura is the fifth generation of his family to farm here. He has a house, a barn and 10 hectares of land on which he runs just 10 mares (there used to be 11). The land alone is worth $A6 million.

Two years ago, when the bubble economy was at its fullest, there was more money around here than you could poke a stick at. More than 8,000 colts were born, and every one sold. At the frenzied yearling sales, overnight property millionaires bid up to $A3 million for unraced colts.

“There were other benefits,” says Mr Nishimura, who is happily married with two children. “It is normally very hard to find a wife in country areas like this, but during the boom young women flocked here.”

Then came the bust. Prices plunged 30, 40, 50 per cent. Last year the breeders’ co-operative in nearby Urakawa, to which Mr Nishimura belongs, saw its average price at auction drop to $68,000 … and at the end of the sale season in November many of the horses were left unsold.

Mr Takashi Uno, a vet who is a director of the co-operative, estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 horses finished up at the knackery last year.

There is such a glut of horsemeat that the “middlemen” of Hidaka are now paying nothing for unwanted mares and foals. They just come and take them away. Wholesale market prices have fallen as low as $5 a kilogram.

Most of the slow horses of Hidaka will finish up as one of the mysterious”various meats” listed as the ingredients of some Japanese sausages and salamis. Mr Nishimura avoids eating such smallgoods.

The “cherry blossom” horsemeat highly prized for sashimi in the southern island of Kyushu – it’s eaten raw in thin slices dunked in soy sauce and grated ginger – comes from specially bred draughthorses called Belgians.

The hard times are already taking their toll on the horse breeders of Hidaka. In the past few years, the number registered with the co-operative has fallen by 200 – some have switched to raising beef or rice, and several of Mr Nishimura’s friends have gone bankrupt.

As well as the collapse of the bubble economy, the breeders blame competition from overseas for their plight. “Horses from Australia and New Zealand and America are better and cheaper,” admits Mr Uno, “not because of their genes but because of the environment, the weather and the skills of the people breeding and training them.”

Since horseracing began in Japan 60 years ago, the industry has been a closed shop – no foreign-born horses were allowed to race here.

That began to change in the late 1980s when the $2 million Japan Cup, the richest race in the country, began accepting foreign entries. In 1991, to the horror of the racing industry, the Australian gelding Better Loosen Up won.

This year, a second race has been opened to foreign horses – the Yasuda Kinen, which will be run in Tokyo on May 15. There is a strong field from Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Largely as a result of pressure from the United States to open the market, 55 per cent of the national racing calendar will be opened to foreign competition by 2001. It was to have been more, sooner, but the breeders pressured the Government to slow things down.

Mr Uno says: “I want Australians to understand that we are not trying to shut our market to foreign competition, but we believe if it happens too quickly it would be a disaster for our industry.”

Either way, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for Mr Nishimura and his fellow Hidaka breeders. The auction season opens again in June, and the co-operative expects prices to continue to fall and more horses to be passed in.

Which is good news only for the Australian breeders, and the horseflesh fanciers of a different sort down in Kyushu.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 20 March 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 17
Word count: 925
Keywords: Horse racing
Photo: Mayu Kanamori
Caption: After the boom years, an uncertain future … horse breeder Mr Nishimura and one of his mares.