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The rockstar, the singer-songwriter and the pop princess: Naosuke Sugai – Japan’s super producer

Trainer Naosuke Sugai speaks to the Report's Michael Cox about what his three biggest stars, Gold Ship, Just A Way and Sodashi, have taught him and how horses are the real stars of the JRA.

It is usually a bad sign when the subject for a profile wants to stop and make a statement midway through the first question, let alone when it is via an interpreter, but trainer Naosuke Sugai has something important to say, and it is music to the ears of racing purists.

“I want to make it clear, here in Japan the horses are the stars,” he says. “They are the idols of the sport, they are the stars. It’s my job as a trainer to get the best out of those horses, so they can perform to the best of their ability in the spotlight.

“My job is behind the scenes, they are on the stage. My job is like a music producer, I didn’t create those horses, my job is to guide them.”

In his tailored black blazer and some ‘bling’ in the form of a gold necklace over a plain black t-shirt, Sugai certainly looks more music mogul or impresario than horse trainer. A conversation with Sugai, like one with many artists, is all fast-paced freeflow collaboration and word association, a case of one idea building on another.

So if Sugai is the producer that must make Gold Ship an audaciously talented-but-cantankerous rock God, right?

“Yes Gold Ship was definitely a rock star, but Just A Way was like a folk singer and Sodashi is the Japanese idol,” he adds without missing a beat. “But, again, I have a strong belief that it is my job to find out the special traits and qualities of each of those individual horses and get the best out of them.”

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Gold Ship up to his usual pre-race antics during his racing days. (Photo: Andrew Hawkins)

A champion three-year-old who raced in a golden era of talent, but dangerously temperamental, Gold Ship is as beloved for the six Group 1s he won as his inexplicable failures and unpredictable antics. Throwing furniture out of the window and into the hotel swimming pool-type stuff.

“He had wildness at heart, a real masculinity, when you look at his record as a stallion he has extremely high fertility,” Sugai says. “Even at trackwork he wasn’t a big fan of other horses. If he saw other horses around him, the ears would go back. He wasn’t the most sociable of horses.”

Harnessing that rockstar energy was what Sugai calls ‘a juggling act’.

“Between the farm and the stables, he put six handlers in hospital,” Sugai says. “The kicking out forward was a common trait, not so much the double barrel kick with the back legs, and if he really didn’t take a liking to somebody it would progress to biting.

“In hindsight, and in my experience in racing around the world, I think Gold Ship would have been gelded at a young age.

“But that behaviour was his natural wildness and character that was showing, so rather than inhibiting it, it was my job for him to be able to best focus it on the racetrack. That (behaviour) was his individuality.

“Gelding him would have changed him; for better or worse I don’t know, but it would have changed what I thought was one of his biggest strengths.”

Sugai pauses for a moment to think about the rock star comparison of Gold Ship, who was given a retirement ceremony at Nakayama after finishing unplaced in the 2015 Arima Kinen, but whose fame has reached new levels among non-racing fans as the most popular character in Uma Musume Pretty Derby anime series and mobile game.

“Now that I reflect on it, comparing him to a rock star, he really was, but maybe even a rock star on drugs is more accurate,” Sugai says. “He was that wild.”

“But in saying that, he got along extremely well with Just A Way, they didn’t have a problem around each other. His box was next to his in the stable.

“Gold Ship had a big ego, and was very strong headed, whereas Just A Way was very gentle and easy to handle. They were in the stable a lot together, and shared a lot of their time in racing together.

“For whatever reason, they got along and would work together, and them getting along so well – other than the talent – was the reason they were able to go to the Arc together, They travelled on the same plane, side-by-side.”

Yuichi Fukunaga celebrates riding Just A Way to victory in the Dubai Duty Free on March 29, 2014. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

That Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe bid, like all of Japan’s before and after, was a flop – Just A Way was eighth and his stablemate 14th behind Treve – but Sugai considers that, like all of his experiences with the two great horses, as a learning experience.

“Just A Way’s performance in Dubai was almost unbelievable, just an amazing performance,” Sugai says, referring to a six-length win which lowered the track record by more than two seconds. “But they were two very different types of horses but in their vast differences, they taught me so much, in the differences in handling horses.

“Just A Way was easy to work with, but the biggest learning curve was from Gold Ship, when you have a horse that is as intense as Gold Ship, at trackwork and in the stables you need to be able to control the horse but at the same time you can’t strangle those rock star abilities. So it was really a balance, trying to keep him calm and focussed when he needed to be, but at the same time not inhibit him and let him do his best on the track.”

Naosuke Sugai with the 'plushies' of his champion horses. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)

Then there is Sodashi, the all-white filly that has attracted unprecedented popularity among racing fans in Japan and beyond for her looks as much as her ability. Even as a three-time Group 1 winner, she is still never likely to measure up to the record of Just A Way or Gold Ship, but Sugai says he has never experienced the level of interest ‘the White Wonder’ attracts.

“Being a white horse is the big drawcard and what makes her so special but it is a number of rare traits that have piled on top of each other to make her ever more special. So you have the white thoroughbred, and then to show success, but then win a Classic race and Group 1s are three rarities which have led to something extremely special.”

As a hit maker, Sugai has always been one for quality over quantity, but as of writing he is on pace for a career-best season: he has 32 wins and ranks seventh among all JRA trainers (his best is 46 wins and sixth in 2012). He also has a promising group of two-year-olds at hand, including recent newcomer winner Dolce More and Deep Impact colt Carro Valoce.

Sodashi, the first white thoroughbred to ever win a G1 race. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

True to his producer philosophy, Sugai won’t be pushing any of the youngsters to the equivalent of teen stardom and revealed he has eased off on Carro Veloce after he showed signs of shin soreness. “He might have his time in the spotlight next year,” Sugai says, before continuing the musical theme.

“I have won a lot of stakes races with two-year-olds, it is doable, and I think they are sometimes easier races to win when they are two-year-olds,” he says. “I am not shying away from it, but I don’t want to rush horses … they will go through their paces, and show some ability, but it is the years after that where I would really like to have the horses carry on and step and have a long career.

“I feel at this stage my philosophy with two-year-olds is ‘why make a one-hit wonder, when you can have a seasoned star for years to come?”

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