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Mitsu Nakauchida followed his dream around the globe and back to Japan: now, the JRA’s leading trainer of 2021 wants to put his stable on the world map.
It was the last day of November 1996 when Mitsumasa Nakauchida exited the weighing room, whip in hand, and made the walk across the paddock to fulfil his boyhood ambition. He was inspired by his heroes, Yutaka Take and Oguri Cap, who six years earlier had received the adulation of the heaving Nakayama crowd after a sensational Arima Kinen victory, the great grey champion’s final race.
But this was not Nakayama or Tokyo or Kyoto; this was not even close to Oí or Kawasaki. This was half a world away from home, at Fairyhouse, Ireland and the 17-year-old amateur jockey was buzzing at the prospect of riding in a race for the first time, the Fort William National Hunt Flat Race.
“It was not good,” he laughs, as he recalls riding the John ‘JJ’ Lennon-trained Beauty’s Pride, to finish ninth of nine in the two-mile ‘bumper’.
“But it was exciting,” he adds. “Ah, it was good. You know, I thought race riding would be much easier than it was, so I was actually tired, too tired to push; I just hung onto the horse, that’s all I could do.”
Nakauchida’s time as a schoolboy amateur jockey with Lennon brought three rides and no wins – next time out, he and Beauty’s Pride would finish 21st of 22 behind the subsequent champion steeplechaser Florida Pearl – but he views his education with the small-time County Wicklow trainer as a cornerstone to his career.
“He treated his horses like family,” he says. “He really taught me how to handle horses, how to be around the horses; not just riding school things but he taught me that to be a horseman is more important than to be a jockey, that was the message he wanted to teach me: it was a very good lesson.”
The low-key Lennon gave him the grounding: time spent with the British champion trainer Richard Hannon, Sylvester Kirk, and US Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, as well as summer spells with the incomparable Sir Mark Prescott and the sage Criquette Head-Maarek, added many valuable layers to his learning.
Now, at the age of 43, Nakauchida is Japan’s ‘champion trainer’ after collecting the JRA’s Leading Trainer award for 2021 with a table-topping 54 wins. His stable features horses racing in the prominent silks of Kazumi Yoshida, Shadai Racehorse, Sunday Racing, Danox, Silk Racing, Carrot Farm, Godolphin, Kaneko Makoto Holdings and more.
He is speaking to Asian Racing Report at Carlburg Stables in Newmarket, where he is preparing Grenadier Guards for the Platinum Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. The property is the base for Roger Varian’s successful string. Varian’s wife, Hanako – Darley Japan’s former Director of Racing – is the sister of Nakauchida’s wife, Yoko
The boy who went to Ireland in search of a dream now stands at the head of a rising generation of Japanese horsemen, internationally-connected, determined to build upon the trailblazing triumphs of trainers like Yoshito Yahagi, Hideyuki Mori, Katsuhiko Sumii, Kazuo Fujisawa, Noriyuki Hori et al: committed to continue taking Japan’s star horses to the world.
Nakauchida was born and raised at Shigaraki Farm, a pre-training facility close to the JRA’s training centre at Ritto in western Japan. His father, Katsuzi, ran the yard there. But it was not until the age of 12, in the burning afterglow of Oguri Cap’s brilliant career, that he decided he wanted to learn to ride and make horse racing his life.
“Oguri Cap and Yutaka Take, they were superstars, they made racing more popular in Japan and I wanted to follow Take,” he says.
Rather than taking a conventional route through the JRA system, Nakauchida left Japan at age 16 to continue his schooling in Ireland. From there, he moved to England to study Equine Business at what was then known as West Oxfordshire College.
“I left home because we didn’t have any equine studies courses like that in Japan at the time,” he says.
He soon linked up with the massive Hannon operation and continued his amateur riding. His first ride in Britain was at Kempton in September 1999, when he placed eighth of 20 and ahead of two other future Group One-winning trainers, Charlie Hills and David O’Meara.
His long-dreamed-of first win came on Hannon’s Dolphinelle at the expense of yet another destined to become a Group One-winning handler, Eve Johnson-Houghton, and it arrived at Lingfield, five days after the millennium new year celebrations.
It was cold but I didn’t feel it. There was so much excitement in that moment.
“It was amazing. I still remember it; it was a six-furlong race and I wasn’t the favourite but I knew I had a good chance, so I wanted to ride aggressively and the horse stayed and managed to win by a head. It was cold but I didn’t feel it, there was so much excitement in that moment,” he beams.
But his race-riding soon took a back-seat, being never more than a boyish pursuit of an elusive dream, and was complete with two wins from 13 races. His focus shifted to the possibility of becoming a trainer and he was determined to absorb as much as he could from the best around.
At Hannon’s, Nakauchuida saw a trainer oversee a team of assistants and head lads organised into structured divisions of delegation to care for more than 200 horses, yet ‘everyone worked for Mr. Hannon, they were his team, he was the boss.’ At Prescott’s 50-horse Heath House stables and Frankel’s American barns, he witnessed the masters controlling every aspect of stable life.
“It was like the military at Sir Mark’s but I wanted to learn from the best,” he says. “It was a positive experience, a really good environment. I think that’s the way it should be for the horses, and he had everything in control: everyone knew their job and he had his eye on everything.”
At Head-Maarek’s, in Chantilly, he discovered the French methods and a different style to race patterns; she arranged for him to go to Frankel in the US, where understanding the importance of training to time, on-track, was helpful for his return to Japan.
“Mr. Frankel wanted to be in charge of everything but he knew what he was doing,” he says. “I actually couldn’t figure out what he was doing a lot of the time: I was just following his orders. I didn’t know why I was doing it. But, years later, I understood what he was saying and asking of me.
“I came to understand the importance of things like why that number of cantering days between the work, how far he was working the horses, the race planning, and, also, he gave the horses time between the races. If the horse wasn’t ready, he wouldn’t run it. He understood each individual horse. That’s something I apply to my own training.”
After 11 years away, he returned to Japan to be assistant trainer to Mitsuru Hashida and experienced a ‘culture shock’.
“It was a very different way of racing and people had a different way of working with horses; riding, horse care, the way horses were handled, all was different. I had to adapt to the way it is done in Japan,” he says.
I knew if I did the same thing I did in Europe or America, it wouldn’t go well in Japan.
“I knew if I did the same thing I did in Europe or America, it wouldn’t go well in Japan. I had to find for myself the things I could use or not to bring back to Japan, so I had to differentiate what I had learned during all those years.”
Hashida, though, had an understanding and an interest in European and American methods and listened to his ideas while also teaching him the Japanese ways.
“I had to learn the JRA system of having horses in training in the stable and then putting them out to the farm and then back in again,” he said, adding that this has been one of the difficulties he has faced in organising his own stable and horse rotations.
“I had to get used to it. I have 26 boxes at Ritto and 66 horses, so the other horses are spread out in pre-training and I have to leave them there until the time is right. This poses difficulties in keeping everything controlled. It is very different to the European way of training but this is the JRA system and it works, so I had to learn to work with that.”
Nakauchida still has the lean, honed build of a rider. When we meet, he is wearing a maroon and white jacket, emblazoned with the livery of his stable, a swish, stylised maroon ‘N’, like the mark of Zorro ‘Z’ tilted on its side.
He has a friendly, easy demeanour, a humble tone in conversation, but like any trainer who has made it to the top, there is also strength and confidence to his manner: a core of discipline and focus that ensures his operation runs to his design.
“I can’t say particularly which of the many experiences I have had are influencing me specifically, but everything I have learnt in the past is all coming together. Everything I learned, good and bad, has taught me things and has shaped how I train the horses and how I manage my stable and my team,” he observes.
Since opening his own stable in 2014, he has trained three Group One winners: Danon Premium, Danon Fantasy and Grenadier Guards. Danon Premium was champion two-year-old colt and Danon Fantasy was champion juvenile filly; in 2019 his stable also received the JRA award for having the highest winning average.
He raced Danon Premium in Australia – he ran third in the 2020 Queen Elizabeth Stakes – and Hong Kong, and Grenadier Guards is his third overseas raid, but he admits to some frustration at not having had more as Covid-related travel restrictions hampered ambitions.
“With Grenadier Guards, I wanted to go to the Golden Eagle last year in Australia but it couldn’t happen, unfortunately. Japanese horses did very well around the world in the last year and the next step for me is to take more horses overseas,” he says.
Success on the international stage would be just reward for Nakauchida’s dedication to his youthful horse racing odyssey and the knowledge he gleaned from those years away from home.
“I think it’s my time to do it,” he adds.
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