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Visiting Hokkaido’s iconic Northern Farm facilities was a learning experience for young trainer Michael Kent Jnr, which is just the way he likes it.
The pair of two-year-olds turn into sight at the bottom of Northern Farm’s uphill gallop in Hokkaido, head-to-head, building pace and churned woodchip in their wake. They are under a firm hold but a gentle squeeze from the rider’s legs and a subtle shake of the reins has them straining for more. Watching from 600 metres away – behind floor-to-ceiling glass from a room at the top of the archway-covered track is Michael Kent Jnr; arms folded, gaze fixed straight ahead and eyes wide, like he is looking into the future.
The youngsters haven’t yet run a furlong when Kent’s questions start.
“What time do they usually run in a gallop like this?”
The man patiently, but promptly, answering the rapid-fire questions is Shingo Hashimoto, manager of international affairs for Northern Farm.
“They should come home in around 15 seconds.”
Kent’s attention turns to a 42-inch plasma inside the hut and live footage of the gallop.
The horses are being filmed by remote cameras that automatically track them through each section and the split times begin to appear on the side of the picture.
Hashimoto explains that the footage, times and relevant data – like when heart rate monitors are used – are all stored in the tall hard drives to the side of the room, on the outside of which four cooling fans whir.
The two-year-olds build pace now, even more woodchips fly. Kent’s questions maintain a similarly solid tempo.
“What is the incline on the gallop?”
The gallop rises 32 metres over the last 600 metres, Hashimoto explains. The incline starts to do its work, the riders push, the horses are off the bit but their hindquarters lower and they finish strong.
The final split appears on the screen: 14.9s.
“One tenth out! Not bad!” Kent says.
The horses have handled the work well, nostrils flare and bellies heave with breath, but at a surprisingly easy rate. The track riders allow their mounts to slow to a walk and the sectional times appear on a large display on the front of the hut for them to see.
One more question, from Kent, for now: “Who are those two horses?”
Both newcomers, Hashimoto explains, one by Lord Kanaloa and another by Epiphaneia.
“Super types,” Kent says, pleased. As he should be: two days earlier, at the yearling section of the Select Sale, Kent put his hand up for a filly by Epiphaneia, the stallion considered to be next-in-line to fill the void left by the departed king Deep Impact, who died in 2019.
💫 Lot 134 Epiphaneia ex Paronella (Lord Kanaloa ex Mosheen) at
🇯🇵 Select Sale
Beautiful and athletic filly @MickPriceRacing
— Michael Kent (@MichaelRhysKent) July 11, 2022
We walk out on to the gallop after the horses have walked down the partitioned section to one side. Kent bends down to grab a handful of the moist woodchip, rubbing it between his hands.
Another question from Kent.
“Is this the gallop our filly will be working on?”
The questions. They never stop from Kent.
“It comes from my dad and how he is, and how he brought me up,” he later explains. “Dad always told me, you were born with two ears and one mouth, so you should use them proportionally; listen twice as much as you talk.”
Growing up the son of Mick Kent, ‘Junior’ got to see a true student of the game up close. Some trainers are talkers – as much salesmen and women as they are horse people, and masters of the media. Others are more hands-on, which Kent Snr probably is to a fault in the sense that his desire to have his hands on every horse, every day, has stopped him expanding in an era of mega stables and training partnerships.
Night time at home in the Kent household was a time for studying the latest vet reports or working on the post-workout lactate testing procedure he helped develop.
“Dad has the philosophy that you are always learning and never thinking that you know enough. So whenever I go to a new environment the aim is to be like a sponge and take in everything I can. You don’t turn up to a new place and tell them everything you think you already know.”
At just 31, Kent has already turned up to plenty of new places with an open mind. After leaving high school he studied vet science in Melbourne before the gravitational pull of racing – grandfathers on both sides of his family were trainers, an uncle a jockey – had him riding trackwork at Flemington for Lindsay Park in the morning before classes.
He trailed along with farriers and vets – always with the questions – and even trained a small team of horses and rode them on the Victorian picnic circuit. Kent’s curiosity then led him abroad on an unofficial self-funded study tour, riding out for the likes of William Haggas at Newmarket, while he spent a month at Chantilly working with Mikel Delzangles. He rode work at Saratoga with Bill Mott. He also worked under bloodstock agent Dermot Farrington.
“Japan was the obvious next step for me on my learning curve,” Kent says of this trip. “The rate with which the Japanese have grown their global racing presence has really intrigued me.”
“The way they have been able to come to Australia with horses considered to be not right at top level here and dominated our best events, across all distances, made me especially keen to get over here. I am very thankful and fortunate Northern Farm would invite us in and I have been totally blown away by what I have seen and experienced.”
So, far be it for the journalist to be asking questions, what has Kent learnt?
“Just as we saw with those riders coming up the hill at an exact speed as directed by the trainer, the Japanese are good horse people, but they really pride themselves on precision and accuracy every step of the way,” he says.
“Even from when the foal is in utero, when it is being raised, when it enters the pre-training system, or when it makes it to the JRA training centre – every single piece of information they can document and learn from, they are across it all. I see a very measured approach to raising and training horses.
I see a very measured approach to raising and training horses.
“Some of the stuff is quite unique: for example, the yearlings are brought into the yards at daytime, and turned out at night, so that they can manage their diet and the amount of weight they are gaining accurately and precisely.
“Early on in trackwork, heart rates are taken, lactates are done on a horse once per month to gauge its progress to establish what type of horse it might be. It has been given me plenty of food for thought.
“Every horse is given the best chance. It’s obvious now while I am here, that the Japanese, in particular Northern Farm, do bring some of the best horses in the world. It shows in their attention-to-detail.”
In the past three-and-a-half years that he has co-trained with Mick Price, Kent has taken a giant step out of the considerable shadow cast by his father. Kent Jnr brought a bloodstock expertise to a stable looking to expand but he hasn’t been content to simply load up on Australian yearlings.
Specifically, Price wanted to tap into Kent’s international bloodstock experience and the new partner has sourced yearlings and two-year-olds from France, England, Ireland and the United States.
The latest purchase – a 60 million yen (around AUD$650,000) filly from the family of superstar Australian race mare and now Northern Farm-based broodmare Mosheen – looms as the final frontier.
“She is an absolute queen, big ears, big nostrils and a lot of scope and quality. She has something I have noticed a lot here, a lot of yearlings have the shorter, upright pasterns which is why they are conducive to firm ground and can produce that turn-of-foot, ” Kent says as he holds the filly at the same Northern farm stable block where a host of champions were raised.
Dozens of photos line the walls, featuring winners just from this block; fillies Normcore and Loves Only You two of the most recent to have their G1-winning pics framed and hung in the barn.
Kent will leave the filly in Northern’s capable hands to be broken in and begin her work before she is sent to Australia.
“Of all the places I have been in the world, this has to be top of the tree,” he says. “Just driving into Northern Farm, you look out on each side of the road and there are acres and acres of perfectly manicured paddocks, not one blade of grass is out of place, not one leaf.
“It is absolute horse heaven. We want to leave her here to take advantage of those amazing pastures, but also the state-of-the-art breaking and pre-training centres. She will be heading up that famous uphill gallop towards the end of this year.
“The soonest I would see her racing would be the back-end of spring 2023, but there is no rush with her. She is bred to get better over time.”
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