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Japan’s three-time champion trainer Yoshito Yahagi speaks to David Morgan about his international outlook and those distinctive hats.
Yoshito Yahagi sits outside alone, in a quiet corner at the end of a stable block at Roger Varian’s Carlburg stables in Newmarket. His legs are crossed, drawing the eye to a fluorescent orange lace in his right sneaker, mismatched with a fluorescent green lace in his left; his jacket commemorates the Dubai wins of his Hiroo race club-owned Panthalassa and Bathrat Leon, and on his head is an attention-grabbing red, white and blue baseball cap carrying the names of the same.
He takes a last draw on the cigarette between his fingers then stands, exhales into the manure-scented air, and with a nod, says ‘good morning’; two phones are packed in the left of two low-slung rear pockets in his slim-legged blue jeans. He walks a short distance around the corner to return to work alongside his staff, preparing the bay King Hermes before an early morning gallop at the July Course.
The colt, Yahagi’s first runner to contest the Group One July Cup, is decked out in the red and white tack, alternate leg wraps of the same colours, and distinctive hood synonymous with Yahagi’s string.
The colourful adornments sported by Yahagi’s and other Japanese trainers’ horses are an obvious and frequent point of comment whenever they venture overseas, as are his hats. But Yahagi is not a man taken to frippery: while his own style-consciousness is doubtless real, there is also a deliberate reason behind his horse’s gear and his famous hat-wearing.
“FC Monaco,” he says, with a smile, when asked about the red and white on his horses – the French Ligue 1 soccer team plays in those colours – and then adds, “White and red is a good combination for the Japanese people because the flag is red and white. But I do the colours on alternate legs so I can assess a horse’s gait during exercise.”
And the hats?
“I made a decision at the start of my career to wear hats, to grab the attention of the public so they would know who I am, because I was unknown then,” he explains.
It worked. Yahagi tapped into the power of image and racing fans connected; his early career even saw him don cowboy hats of red and purple; at Meydan in March, he started the afternoon in a yellow straw hat with a ribbon of rich cerise hue and ended the evening in a sharp white hat with an understated blue band.
But he has backed up his brand with results built upon astute, never-ending learning, the application of precise methods, unwavering ambition and a confidence in his own ability.
His well-documented international exploits through the last year in particular have emphasised how well his approach works: a historic double at the Breeders’ Cup in California, major wins in Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia and a three-timer at the Dubai World Cup meeting. Add also to that mix three JRA champion trainer titles in the past seven years, a running tally of 24 Group 1 wins, domestic Classics and Contrail’s Triple Crown triumph, as well as a Cox Plate victory in Australia.
Taking what he has done in the past three years in isolation, it is difficult to find a close comparison among other trainers, given his stable’s limited size. Bearing that in mind, the scope of his conquests seems almost 1990s Godolphin, when Sheikh Mohammed’s select team of globe-trotting horses was few in number and high in quality.
One thing is certain: 18 years into his career as a JRA-licensed trainer, he has proven that he is more than ‘that Japanese trainer with the hats’. Strip back the image and cut away any existing cliches around Japanese horsemen, and we are left with Yahagi, an outstanding trainer of racehorses in the bracket of Stoute, Gosden, O’Brien, Size, Waller and Pletcher.
Yahagi was born on March 20, 1961 and horse racing was all around him from the start. His father, Kazuto Yahagi, was a trainer at Oí racecourse, a blue-collar dirt track set-up in Tokyo, now the flagship Tokyo City Keiba venue on the NAR local council circuit.
Back then it was a bustling, suburban training centre and among the tough horsemen and their dirt track grinders, Yahagi found his calling: “I always wanted to be a trainer.”
It is now mid-morning at Carlburg Stables, King Hermes has galloped and Bathrat Leon, destined for the Group One Sussex Stakes, is being prepared to go out on Warren Hill. Most of the interview is being interpreted via the JRA’s Kanichi Kusano.
Yahagi’s route to receiving his JRA licence was long in duration and took him to Australia as a young man in the 1980s to work and learn under Neville Begg and Bart Cummings, then in 1990, a Sheikh Mohammed-backed scholarship landed him in Newmarket for three months at Geoff Wragg’s Abington Place Stables.
The knowledge he gained under those masters would underpin his approaches to training. But before he would get that opportunity, he had a near-two decades stretch edging up the ladder, setting out on his assistant trainer path under Sadataka Sugaya, a low-key Ritto-based handler whose stock was rarely up to competing in the high grades.
“Eighteen years… the JRA didn’t give me the licence,” he says in English, his tone one of playful chiding, and he and Kusano laugh together.
But, after receiving his licence in 2004, to train at Ritto, he made up for lost time and worked hard to be noticed. His first campaign, 2005, saw him place 103rd in the list with 15 wins from 116 races; he improved to 45th in his second season and in 2007 he placed 11th with 33 wins from 254 races; since then, he has finished outside of the top 10 only once, in 2011, and has had nine top five finishes including his three championships. He is currently second in the standings with 25 wins.
Yahagi’s approach is to race his horses often. Yet, even now, as one of Japanese racing’s biggest names, he is restricted to a maximum of 75 horses and has only 30 boxes at Ritto from which to prepare them for the races. For every JRA trainer, it is a case of rotating horses from pre-training farms, into the racing stables to race and then back out again.
Yahagi has mastered the process, to the extent that he has far more runners than any of his contemporaries. When he was leading trainer in 2020 and 2016, his horses ran in more than 500 combined races each season: since 1990, the most runners any other champion trainer had in a season was when Katsuhiko Sumii’s horses contested 371 races in 2013.
If there is a criticism it is that his win percentage is below 10 per cent, but on the other hand, his 2020 title winning season saw him accrue ¥2,035,560,000 (AU$22 million) in prize money, the highest total since 2004.
And he will take a patient approach, too, if a horse, particularly an elite galloper, needs time between races, as he showed with Contrail in that horse’s three-race four-year-old season. The reward for backing off after the colt’s sub-par first-up run was a glorious finale in the Group One Japan Cup.
“When I went to Geoff Wragg, that was my first visit to the UK so the things I saw and experienced, they are all elements of what I do now,” he says.
“But when I was in Australia with Neville Begg and Bart Cummings, I saw that the trainers there would try to race the horses frequently. From observing this, I learned how to recover the horses quickly from the fatigue, and that has enabled me to develop the efficiency with my runners and prepare them to race more than the other trainers.
“I would like to have more horses if I could but it’s not possible under the system; but because I only have 75 horses to control, I can really watch closely and perhaps get more hands on than (international) trainers who have many more horses in their stables. That maybe is the key to our success.”
That close attention to small details and being involved in seemingly menial elements was evident earlier that morning: from carrying the box of tack to the horse box with his jockey Ryusei Sakai, to holding King Hermes’s head patiently while he was being saddled at the racecourse. It was the same in Dubai back in March when he was rewarded with three winners: staying close to his horses, running a keen eye over preparations. No task was too small, no detail unimportant.
Yahagi’s handling and placing of Lys Gracieux, Loves Only You, Marche Lorraine, Stay Foolish, Panthalassa and Bathrat Leon has yielded major wins outside of Japan that have elevated him to a position of global recognition.
“I always look at the international races schedule, not only Japan, I take a wide eye. It’s important, I think,” he says.
Having won majors in Asia, Australia, the Middle-East and North America, Europe is now at the forefront of his thoughts. He first ventured to Britain in 2011 when he sent the top class three-year-old miler Grand Prix Boss to the St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, only to meet the mighty Frankel. The colt finished a long way eighth of nine.
A year later he tried again, with the Japanese Derby winner Deep Brillante attempting the weight-for-age King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, again at Ascot. He was eighth of 10 behind Danedream.
“Those horses showed me that it would not be an easy task to travel to Europe or the UK and win. In the years since, I have been studying hard to build up my strategy and approach to training my horses, so the approach this time is quite different than 10 years ago and I’m confident in my experience,” he says.
“I really think Europe is the last big piece to complete my record as a trainer, it’s the piece that is missing and I really want to fix that because training horses is my whole life.”
It is 24 years since Hideyuki Mori blazed the trail and saddled Japan’s first Group One winner overseas: Seeking The Pearl, in the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville. It was Mori, too, who gave Japan a victory in the July Cup, 22 years ago, with Agnes World.
Yahagi acknowledges Mori’s pathfinding status but makes the point that he has arrived at this juncture by finding his own route, rather than following in footsteps.
“I have my own way, doing all of these different things,” he told Asian Racing Report when in Dubai in March. “While Mori set an example in the past, there is now the Yahagi path, by taking a few notes but also doing things my own way.”
Back in Newmarket, he adds: “I have gained a lot of experience from challenging internationally. I also want, even though the current situation in Japanese racing is good, I want my fellow Japanese trainers to follow this path as well.”
All around him, Carlburg Stables is peaceful as he speaks. Some of the yard’s 150 or so horses are out on the Newmarket gallops while others have already returned to their boxes. Varian’s farrier walks by as he does his rounds: he is wearing one of the red, white and blue Yahagi hats.
Yahagi himself is showing the world that there is substance to match the eye-catching livery. His true style, after all, is that of a master trainer; a champion of racing’s increasingly globalised arena, hat and all.
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