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Daddy-daughter day at Tokyo as the pop starlet Sodashi takes centre stage

Sodashi is at the forefront of a surge in popularity among young racefans – and they are bringing their dads back to the races with them.

Sodashi hits the front in the Fuchu Himba Stakes. (Photo: @kabosu7222 via Twitter).

Getting to Tokyo Racecourse by train on a non-Group 1 raceday isn’t necessarily a straightforward task for a non-Japanese speaking foreigner – especially if you start in the neo futurist maze that is Shinjuku and its 200-exit,12-line railway station – but on Saturday there was a simple navigational aid: just follow the Sodashi plushies.

The small, but large-for-a-keyring, version of the all-white plush toy was dangling from enough backpacks that finding Fuchūkeiba-seimommae Station – the stop nearest the main entrance to Tokyo Racecourse – was easy enough.

Racing in Japan is riding a post-Covid surge of popularity and Sodashi, the pure white, triple-G1 winning mare isn’t just along for the ride, she is flying high on the crest.

“I am a Sodashi fan first, then racing fan next,” Akaki says after assuring that yes, Fuchūkeiba-seimommae Station is in fact the next stop, and also yes, it is the stop that corresponds to the racecourse.

“Actually I was a Sodashi fan first, then Uma Musume and then keiba,” she adds, referring to the wildly popular and immensely profitable anime, manga, mobile phone game and music franchise, Uma Musume, and the Japanese word for horse racing, Keiba.

“But he was and is keiba first,” Akaki says, pointing at her father in the seat next to her. “He has been coming to the racetrack for a long time.”

It is the first time Akaki has been to the races on a non-Group 1 day and the reason is the superstar mare Sodashi, who is set to start favourite in the G2 Fuchu Himba Stakes, a lead-up race for next month’s G1 Mile Championship. This is not the first time for her father, but the older fans like him are dwindling since crowds have built back up.

Part of the buzz on Japanese racecourses post-Covid is the relative youth and diversity at the track. There are still restrictions on numbers, but a crowd of just under 30,000 like Saturday’s is packed with so much energy that it feels – and sounds – like more.

The prevailing theory as to why the crowds are younger is that the complicated online process for booking tickets is steering the crusty-old-man crowd away and opening up room for youngsters.

Anecdotally, word is that the WINS – the JRA’s off track betting centres – are packed with old blokes incapable of creating a JRA username and password, or securing a ticket online and downloading the QR code you need to get in.

This technological barrier also pushes forward a plausible theory about why there are more father-and-daughters on-course: maybe that’s how they got the almighty QR code on their phones, they asked a young person, and in many cases, their daughters.

 

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Sodashi is challenged by Izu Jo No Kiseki. (Photo: @gomap_ via Twitter).

However they all got here, most are here for Sodashi. More than three hours before the feature race and the crowd around the parade ring is already shoulder-to-shoulder and more than a dozen people deep.

Emma, a 20-year-old decked out in the Sodashi white baseball cap with ears, and with the requisite Sodashi plushie on backpack, has travelled 100km on the Shinkansen from Shizuoka, near Mount Fuji, to Tokyo to see her idol horse.

Her parents have travelled from the other side of Tokyo to meet her here.

Emma’s father Ryoji has been coming for more than 30 years and witnessed scenes like this before.

His idol horse was Oguri Cap. It was the rags-to-riches story of the versatile grey that got Ryoji in: “You know, his breeding was nothing, no pedigree,” Ryoji says. “He came up from nothing.”

There were 177,779 fans at Nakayama when Oguri Cap won the Arima Kinen in 1990, the same year there were 196,517 at Tokyo for Ines Fujin’s Japan Derby. That era is when many believe the JRA shifted from a gambling medium to an event.

Emma with her Sodashi plushie. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)

Emma and her family are on course to watch Sodashi. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)

Given Ryoji’s fandom was forged in that golden time, it isn’t surprising that he seems a little nonplussed at Sodashi’s fame, “she is white, and she is beautiful,” he says with a slight shrug when asked about her, the words delivered with the type of delightfully subtle cynicism only a man of three decades on the punt can muster. You can just tell by the determined grip he has on his betting tickets that he will be looking to bet on something to beat Sodashi, who cannot be anything but overbet at 1.9, given the hype.

Oguri Cap might have been the gritty hero perfect for the late 80s and early 90s but Sodashi is a horse of her time too: an instagrammable superstar.

When her trainer Naosuke Sugai called her the Pop idol to Gold Ship’s rock star in an interview last month it wasn’t meant as a slight: she is seriously talented, but she just happens to be pretty as well, and has the mainstream audience cornered.

She is not only the horse everybody is here to see, but photograph too, judging by the hundreds of long lenses along the front rows of the racetrack and parade ring. The stunning thing about the Tokyo Racecourse parade ring on a big day is the noise, or the lack thereof, to be precise. There must be at least five thousand people crammed in around the auditorium and the loudest sound is an occasional cough and the staccato clicks of cameras as Sodashi passes.

Tokyo racecourse is spacious and clean. It is an inviting place for newcomers. The JRA has a classroom giving ‘beginners courses’ and there are more than 75 food and drink outlets in the grandstand, plus a dozen or so food trucks out on the family-friendly infield.

In the lower tier of the grandstand, it is ten minutes until post time and Yui, a five-year-old girl, is happily munching away on one of the deep-fried delicacies-on-a-stick from the infield food trucks.

She can’t even reach the ground from her seat, but she happily swings her feet. She has a Sodashi plushie at her side and a smile on her face.

“She loves Sodashi,” says her father Jiro. “This is her second time at the races.”

Yui is too young to make sense of much beyond the food right in front of her, but she does know that Sodashi is expected to win, and she leaps to her feet and stands on her seat once the race begins.

Yui samples some of the racetrack cuisine ahead of Sodashi contesting the Fuchu Himba Stakes. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)

Yui and her dad Jiru are on track to see Sodashi. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)

You know how you can always see where the grey horse is in a race? Well, Sodashi has a near-luminescence that makes watching her live exhilarating. Every move in the race is met with an instant reaction from the crowd. Her jockey Hayato Yoshida nestles her three horses back on the fence during the race, and ducks and dives to find a run midway up the straight. It brings oohs and ahhs from the crowd and a roar that sounds like it is coming from 60,000 people when she hits the front.

There is only one horse the massed fans are crying out for and it is Sodashi, but as she is nabbed right on the line by the 34-1 outsider Izu Jo No Kiseki, there is a collective groan.

“She finished second,” Jiro says to Yui, holding two fingers up. Yui seems more ok with the result than her dad is, but there are a lot of glum faces as Izu Jo no Kiseki receives a polite round of applause as she returns to scale.

Sodashi will bounce back, she was giving two kilos to the winner – who trailed her into the race and got the easier run – and back at a mile she is better. Sodashi will get her shot at a fourth G1, but first against male horses, at Hanshin next month. In fact Sodashi is four-from-four at 1600m on turf, all three of her G1s have been at that distance.

Little Yui will be back too, hopefully for many years to come. She might not understand the weight Sodashi carried or that she is better over shorter distances. What she will remember is the noise and shared excitement of that exhilarating moment when the pretty white horse dodged and weaved, then burst for home, and the way the crowd suddenly went quiet. She will still have her Sodashi plushie and it might lead her back to the racecourse too.

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