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Japan's three-time G1 winner Sodashi has put the exceedingly rare white thoroughbred on the global map. But the story behind the 'White Wonder's' one-in-one-hundred-thousand, snow coloured coat? It's all in the family.
When two-year-old filly Sodashi extended her unbeaten record to four by narrowly prevailing in the G1 Juvenile Fillies on the Hanshin turf in 2020, it signalled something of a crowning moment for one of Japanese horse racing’s most revered thoroughbred families.
For Sodashi was the latest representative of the ‘white hairs’, a line of exceedingly rare pure white racehorses whose striking appearance have captivated Japanese racegoers for the best part of three decades.
This was the first time, however, that one of the white ‘unicorns’ had exhibited the racetrack talent to justify the celebrity status conferred by their one-in-one-hundred-thousand coat colour, and it has proven a compelling storyline, one that can be traced back to the mid-1990s and a mare named Shirayukihime.
On April 4, 1996 at Hokkaido’s Northern Farm, a foal filly was born, the product of a mating between Kentucky Derby winner and 13-time champion stallion of Japan, Sunday Silence, and an imported American mare named Wave Wind. The filly’s sire was officially listed as brown in colour, her dam the even more common bay.
But the filly herself? Shirayukihime – or ‘Snow White’, as her name translates to – was born pure white (as distinct from grey, which can give the appearance of whiteness as a horse ages), likely the result of a single spontaneous mutation on the ‘KIT’ gene.
Such colour-related mutations often prove dominant (meaning the colour is passed on to the resultant offspring no matter the colour of the other half of the mating), and so it would be in the case of Shirayukihime.
‘Snow White’ wasn’t a very fast horse, but that didn’t stop crowds coming out in force to see her, in what was a theme that would characterise the racing careers of many of her hugely popular offspring. Retired after nine largely unremarkable starts, it was in the breeding barn that Shirayukihime would leave her legacy.
Though white colouring only manifests in an estimated one in every one-hundred-thousand thoroughbreds, Japanese racing was about to be adorned by an unprecedented equine ‘snowfall’.
In her fifteen years as a broodmare Shirayukihime produced no less than nine white thoroughbreds from her 10 named foals, starting with a colt named Shirokun in 2003, who failed to register a placing in five career starts. Whilst Shirokun (below) was by Black Hawk, Shirayukihime’s remaining foals were either by grey stallion Kurofune, or the bay champion King Kamehameha.
Next up was White Vessel, winner of three dirt races. Foaled in 2005, Yukichan was the first of Shirayukihime’s daughters and a strong performer on the NAR circuit, winning several Listed events including the Kanto Oaks at Kawasaki.
After Yukichan came Shirayukihime’s only non-white named foal, Mama’s Dish, whose grey colour largely carried to her own progeny.
Marshmallow and Blanc Manger followed, before a pair of extravagantly-coloured daughters in Marble Cake and Buchiko. Officially registered as white, both of these mares also carried chestnut dapple-like patches on their coat.
Buchiko – whose name loosely means ‘Dappled Girl’ – was even more popular than her siblings during her racing days, the four-time winner credited with attracting more female fans to Japanese racetracks.
— 馬人 (@831umauma) March 6, 2016
Shirayukihime’s adored ‘white set’ was completed by Shironii and the talented dirt performer Butchini, with the latter also carrying the chestnut dapples of her full sisters Marble Cake and Buchiko.
Of Shirayukihime’s six broodmare daughters, five have produced at least one white descendant, with Buchiko’s triple G1-winner Sodashi the most successful.
— カネナシオペラクン (@KanenashiOpera_) December 13, 2020
In winning the Juvenile Fillies Sodashi became the first officially white thoroughbred anywhere in the world to win a Group 1 race. She didn’t stop there, Japan’s Champion Two-Year-Old Filly of 2020 returning in April of 2021 to win the G1 Oka Sho at Hanshin on the path to also being crowned Japan’s Three-Year-Old Champion Filly of 2021.
Some patchy form in the back end of 2021 suggested that Sodashi might have failed to train on, but that notion was spectacularly dispelled when the now four-year-old returned with a devastating win in the G1 Victoria Mile in May of 2022.
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So admired is Sodashi that soft toy ‘plushies’ in her likeness have sold at record rates, and have become a much sought after commodity on Japanese racetracks.
Marshmallow also produced a quality white son in the shape of dual-surface galloper Hayayakko, winner of six races including the G3 Hakodate Kinen on July 17, and has an unraced two-year-old white filly by Lovely Day,
Hayayakko and Sodashi are expected to clash in the G2 Sapporo Kinen on August 21, in what will be a highly anticipated event in Japan.
All in all, there are 25 white descendants of Shirayukihime in the Japanese Stud Book, six of which are listed as active racehorses. There are also at least five white horses from that family who are unraced two-year-olds, yearlings or foals.
As if one family of white thoroughbreds wasn’t unusual enough, another ‘white’ bloodline has achieved prominence in Japan via a broodmare well-known to Australian audiences.
Like Shirayukihime, The Opera House didn’t amount to much on the racetrack, a Wyong 2100m maiden her only victory from nine attempts. And like Shirayukihime, The Opera House was born pure white.
By Zabeel out of Carmina Burana – which made her a three-quarter sister to the Australian champion Might And Power – The Opera House cost $270,000 as a yearling, purhcased by Kris Lees for prominent owner John Singleton. She also exhibited a dominant colour gene once commencing broodmare duties, with her daughters Utzon and Grand Bernini both all-white winners in Australia.
In 2016, another white foal out of The Opera House by High Chaparral caught the eye of Japanese owner and breeder Hideo Takadaru, who purchased her as a yearling for $450,000 at Karaka.
Breaking through for a maiden win at Hakodate in 2017, Casta Diva has since produced a white Gold Ship colt named Aoraki (below), who has exhibited some of the cantankerous tendencies of his sire stepping out in three career starts to date.
— 金子裕次郎(勝馬) (@casinodrive0307) August 11, 2022
The Opera House remains an active broodmare at Windsor Park Stud in New Zealand but hasn’t produced a white foal since Utzon in 2016. Utzon herself is part of the Yulong broodmare band in Victoria but her two foals to date, both by Grunt, have been bays.
The Opera House was the only white foal of Carmina Burana and it appears that there has been no other member of that family in Australia or New Zealand, apart from the two mentioned above, where the elusive white gene has come to the fore again.
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