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What is Uma Musume Pretty Derby? Michael Cox takes a look at the compelling, hugely-profitable cultural phenomenon that's creating a new generation of Japanese horse racing fans.
“Do you like anime?” asked the barista in the Tokyo cafe.
“Does Uma Musume count?”
“Yes! I love Gold Ship.”
First, before we get back to this cafe story and why it is important, what is Uma Musume Pretty Derby? Well, it’s a wildly popular and highly profitable game, comic and animation series featuring ‘horse girls’ that carry the names and characteristics of former champion racehorses. Simple enough.
But it is also a cultural phenomenon that is driving a new wave of interest in Japanese horse racing, and having real world effects through the founder of Uma Musume’s parent company Cygames, Susumu Fujita, who was the leading buyer at the most recent JRHA Select Sale in Hokkaido.
But still the question remains, what is it? To say that Uma Musume is simply a series about pretty horse girls that are actually champion racehorses reborn into a parallel universe would be like saying Star Wars is a story about a kid from a farm.
Sure, Uma Musume is about horse girls, but that description also makes it sound like something for the ‘only in Japan’ files. Reducing Uma Musume to another example of Japanese quirkiness or kawaii (cuteness) culture, would also be unfair, and it would be underselling the depth and complexity of the Uma Musume universe, not to mention its extraordinary mainstream reach and real world impacts.
The most surprising aspect of the Tokyo barista’s enthusiasm for Uma Musume was that she had never been interested in horse racing before. An appreciation for Gold Ship – the anime character with a personality reflective of its equine namesake and thus, well, quirky – encouraged the barista, with no previous interest in ‘keiba’, to search for the real Gold Ship online. At that moment, a new horse racing fan was born.
It’s not just the certifiably mad Gold Ship, but all of the characters in Ume Musume that carry defining characteristics of their real life version. Within the show there are nods to the racetrack achievements and backgrounds of each horse, and events peppered with real lines of race commentary.
It is revealed in the series that Special Week was raised by a nanny mare before going on to become a superstar, just as the racehorse was as a foal in Hokkaido. Fuji Kiseki – a flashy unbeaten colt and heartthrob of a generation – is depicted as a beautiful horse with a Cupid-like effect on fans.
And not all of the characters are champions: Twin Turbo was a three-time Group 3 winner who had an all-or-nothing style reflected in his race record of six wins, two seconds and 27 unplaced runs from 35 starts. In the show Twin Turbo, embodied as a girl, is a fearless front-runner blessed with both talent and a seeming inability to learn that infuriates her classmates.
Uma Musume might be a game but it is also big business. The smartphone app-based game, which followed the manga and anime series and was launched by Cygames in February last year, already had more than 10 million downloads by the start of 2022 and is now the most profitable mobile game in Japan.
How profitable? In 2021 the Uma Musume game had sales revenue of 130 billion yen and a profit of 109.6 billion yen, which is AUD$1.2 billion.
The benefit to racing hasn’t just flowed in the way Uma Musume drives interest and awareness, but in how Cygames’ now-billionaire founder Fujita has been making a big splash at the foal and yearling sales.
At this year’s JRHA Select Sale, Fujita spent more than 2.4 billion yen (AUD$25 million) on yearlings and foals, including the top-priced yearling filly for 210 million yen (AUD$2.28m).
He was back at last week’s Hokkaido Selection Sale going to 66 million yen for a Bricks and Mortar colt, while the 49-year-old has also been to the United States and bought at Keeneland.
Fujita already has 22 horses active in the JRA and has won 10 races in total. Promising three-year-old Jean Gros, winner of the Group 2 New Zealand Trophy, and unplaced last start at Group 1 level, is his best horse.
One of the feel-good spin-offs of Uma Musume is a keen interest in the lives of the retired racehorses depicted in the series.
When the non-profit Retired Horse Association (RHA) arranged a donation campaign as a birthday celebration for Nice Nature, a popular character in Uma Musume, the RHA was inundated with donations. In 2021 the target was 2 million yen (AUD$20,000) and it received 35 million (AUD$377,860), while this year the donations topped 54 million yen (AUD$583,000).
The surplus donations for Nice Nature meant many more retired racehorses were kept in top class care and retrained for use as therapy horses.
Uma Musume’s popularity and the obsession it creates in fans means there is intense speculation around which characters will enter the game next. The game has also been translated into Korean and Chinese, but there is no word yet on an English language version.
When it does appear you can be sure it will spark good-natured debate: what type of horse girl would Frankel be? Would Winx fit in at Tracen Academy?
It might sound silly to some, but the scope of Uma Musume – and the fact Tokyo baristas are talking about it – tells you it is tapping into something meaningful.
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