The Legend of Oju Chosan

On the date when, fable has it, Father Christmas’s antlered coursers spring magically into flight, it is fitting that Japan’s greatest jumps horse will leap the Nakayama fences one last time.

The mighty Oju Chosan wins his third Nakayama Daishogai in 2021. (Photo by JRA)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Christmas Eve at Nakayama will have an extra layer of magic and poignancy when the living legend Oju Chosan steps out to jump fences at racing pace for the final time. 

Retirement beckons for Japan’s greatest steeplechaser, who will attempt to sign off with a fourth win in the Nakayama Daishogai. Yet whilst a quartet of wins in the December Group 1 would be something special, it would not be altogether out of the ordinary for a horse that last April won the Nakayama Grand Jump for a phenomenal sixth time.

Jumps racing has its own small niche in Japan, being a side act to the JRA’s main business of exquisite flat racing that showcases some of the best races and racehorses in the world. Statistics for 2021 showed that 485 individual horses competed in 127 jumps races under JRA rules, compared with 11,062 individual horses contesting 3,329 flat races that year.

But Oju Chosan is no small pond hero, he is a horse of serious credibility and established cult status, as well as world record earnings for a ‘jumper’ of close to US$7million.

His image will soon be one for wistful reminiscence: the strong, nimble bay, white blaze poking from beneath blue hood, embellished by blue cheek-pieces and matching reins, his rider decked in the red and white silks of his owner/breeder Naoyoshi Nagayama.


The great Oju Chosan at Nakayama. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Oju Chosan on his way to winning a fourth-straight Nakayama Grand Jump in 2019. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

His race record over jumps stands at 18 wins from 31 races, including a streak of 13 consecutive wins over fences at his peak, stretching from his first Nakayama Grand Jump victory in April 2016 through his fourth Grand Jump in 2019. He also set record times in the 2017 Nakayama Daishogai, 2018 Nakayama Grand Jump and the 2020 G2 Hanshin Spring Jump.

But he has also mixed it at the very highest grade on the flat and that has only elevated his status as an icon in Japanese racing folklore.

“Oh, the fans love him,” said Mirco Demuro, who three years ago rode the superstar steeplechaser to finish a close-up sixth in Japan’s longest flat race, the G2 Stayers Stakes over 3600 metres.

“He’s a special horse with a big heart and the people who love him have had a lot of fun.”

Japan’s keen and knowledgeable racing fans expressed their love and admiration in quantifiable form back in December 2018 when the ‘fun’ extended to Oju Chosan participating in Japan’s great end of year Grand Prix, the fan-voted G1 Arima Kinen, a race won by the likes of Deep Impact, Oguri Cap and Orfevre.

Comparisons with European jump racing are a difficult fit but it would have been akin perhaps to Desert Orchid or Kauto Star rocking up in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.  

Incredibly, pitched in against Group 1 ‘flat’ stars, the Shoichiro Wada-trained entire was the overall third pick in the fan vote that helps determine the line-up, polling 100,382 votes to Almond Eye’s 105,561, with that year’s Derby winner Rey de Oro the top pick on 110,293 votes.  

Oju Chosan – seven years old at the time – worked his way into that major flat race with two wins on the level. Then, with fellow legend Yutaka Take in the saddle, he ran home a meritorious ninth of 16 in the race won by Blast Onepiece (Almond Eye did not run).  

“The owner ran him in the Arima Kinen with Yutaka Take but then after the horse won the Nakayama Grand Jump for the fourth year in a row (in 2019), he still believed in the horse, that he could run in a flat race, so I rode him in the Stayers,” Demuro recalled.

The jumper took the jockey by surprise with his early speed in that 13-runner, two and a quarter-mile contest, in which he was beaten just two and a quarter lengths. 

“For jumping races in Japan, they jump out of the gate, it’s not like in Europe, and he came out of the gate like he was a two-year-old,” the Italian recalled. “He was quicker than a two-year-old even and that was impressive to me. It had been a long time since I’d jumped out that fast and I didn’t expect it from a jumping horse.”

Jumps racing in Japan emerged in the 1920s as a way to develop the breed to serve as military horses but it is a long way removed from that nowadays and Demuro was quick to scotch any idea that Japanese jumps horses are low graders seeking an easier task. Rather, oftentimes they are talented horses unable to advance within the JRA system of ‘class’ races.

“If a horse wins two races he then has to go to the race where every horse has won two races, or then he becomes a winner of three and after that has to go to open races, which is before the Listed races,” he said.

“It’s hard to win the next race, but if they were in Europe they could keep running their whole career in Listed races or back in handicaps if they’re managed well. In Japan when you reach the top, you can’t go back, and some of those horses go to jumps races, so they’re not bad horses.”

Shinichi Ishigami hands out autographs to racegoers at Nakayama. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Oju Chosan and Ishigami compete at Nakayama. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Oju Chosan, a son of Stay Gold, raced only two times on the flat – as a juvenile – without success, before he switched to the jumps and won his maiden chase at the fourth attempt, as a four-year-old. A slow burner at first, his career took off a season later with his victory in the 2016 Nakayama Grand Jump.  

Now an esteemed 11-year-old, he has raced just once since his famous sixth Grand Jump victory in April.

That was two months ago in the Tokyo High Jump when he finished a plodding ninth, just the second time he failed to make the top three in a jumps race since his sixth in the 2015 Nakayama Daishogai.

On Christmas Eve, with his regular jumps pilot Shinichi Ishigami in the saddle, he will again face his impressive Tokyo conqueror, the five-year-old Xenoverse. But that High Jump loss was over 3110 metres, his farewell outing is over 4100 metres at his favourite track, and such is his massive popularity that the early market predictions had the ageing hero as the expected 1.9 favourite to the upstart’s 2.6 second choice.

Whatever the outcome, Oju Chosan is expected to receive a huge send-off at the planned post-racing retirement ceremony and will head to a new life as a stallion at his birthplace, Bando Bokujo in Hokkaido.

“You know, I found him to be a quiet horse and very intelligent,” Demuro added.

And if those attributes along with his athletic ability can be passed on to his progeny, who knows? Maybe there’ll be more yet to be added to the legend of Oju Chosan.



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