For trainer Ryuji Okubo, Chuwa Wizard represents the best of Japanese breeding and racing excellence. However, in his last start the 6YO son of King Kamehameha was unable to gain ground on the rain-affected track and finished ninth in the US$20m Saudi Cup. The Japanese entire will be seen next in the Dubai World Cup, seeking retribution from Saudi Cup winner Mishriff.
Here, Ten Furlongs speaks with Ryuji Okubo about Chuwa Wizard, the Riyadh experience, his plans for the future and the lessons learnt in the COVID era.
Q: What was the Saudi racecourse like and how did you enjoy your visit? What are your learnings?
A: It was a great honor to visit wonderful racecourse in Riyadh. Although it seemed things had been hectic through various positions across the Jockey Club. I understand that this is because Saudi Cup event that just started last year was held under severe COVID-19 situation this year, but I’m very grateful for the hospitality of all involved, and I hope the event will be much better one next year.
During the stay in Riyadh, Chuwa Wizard worked out well but he could not show his true potential in the race. I think one of the reasons for his defeat is slippery ground due the rainfall just before the race, but I’d like to devise various strategies, such as proper choice of horseshoe, etc., within the rules to have a good result in Dubai.
Q: Japanese racing and breeding program is giving excellent results. What do you feel should be the next level for Japanese horses?
A: I think it’s important to have horses take special education (training) from a young stage. For example, this was the second time for Chuwa Wizard to experience long-distance transportation by airplane since last year when he was transported to and from Dubai, but if he had a chance to take part in the international races and experienced long-distance transportation by airplane before, things would have been different. I was surprised that horses were carried over a distance of 900km by an airplane from Riyadh to Dubai because domestic horse transportation in Japan is always conducted by horse van even though transportation distance is over 1,000km far away. It may be difficult to do so considering the transportation cost, but I think opening up the option regarding our domestic horse transportation and getting horses used to transportation by airplane will be also important to raise world-class horses.
Q: Who is your most favourite horse and why?
A: The horse I love the most is not the one I trained, but the one named Narita Brian that my father, Masaaki Okubo trained. I first met the horse (Narita Brian) when I was working for my father's stable as an assistant trainer, and he won 5 Group One Races including Triple Crown Races in his career and he has been a good example for me until now. The horse was really beautiful and overpowering at the same time, and I always felt like halo glowed around him.
Q: What attracted you to horses and the thoroughbred racing industry? Please tell more about how you honed your rare talent for choosing the right horses for your stable and developing them according to their true potential.
A: Because my father used to be a horse trainer and I grew up in an environment where horses were very close to me, I naturally turned my attention to the horse racing world as my permanent job. Also, I was so fascinated by the horse racing world because of its globally spread and its weight (accumulation) of history.
As a trainer, I am usually conscious of the fact that horses will not run unless they are happy. In other words, horses are sensitive animals and are straight with their feelings, so I pay special attention to enhancing horses’ emotion properly according to their running schedule.
Q: Of all the horses you've been around, which horse according to you has the greatest 'character’ and why do you say that? Please tell us more about the 'vocabulary of friendship' you share with horses?
A: I think above mentioned Narita Brian is also the greatest character horse.
As for “vocabulary of friendship”, I don’t have any specific words, but what I am always aware of is that I talk to horses naturally as if I talk to persons. And I don't know if horses understand me or not, but on the other hand, I have a feeling that horses understand properly what I have told them.
Q: What sales do you typically attend each year? What is your process for choosing horses?
A: Every year (except last year), I usually participate in 5 or 6 domestic auctions of various scales, and I sometimes have a chance to participate in overseas auctions if requested to buy overseas bred horses by the owner.
The most important thing for me to focus on when choosing a horse is a balance of the horse body, not to speak of standstill, gait and pedigree.
Q: What have been two life lessons that you've learnt during Covid-19 and isolation that have become important to you and which will stay with you for a lifetime?
A: Through isolation due to COVID-19, I really felt that work is not done by one person, but through connection with other persons. For example, now I cannot go to farms to see horses directly, so the only way to get information about horses is to get it from other persons. Under this situation, I again realized that work is built on a relationship of mutual trust.
Q: What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment in your career and who are/ is your biggest inspiration?
A: Since I became a trainer, I’ve won three Group One races, 2007 Japanese St. Leger by Asakusa Kings, 2014 Mile Championship by Danon Shark and 2020 Champions Cup by Chuwa Wizard, but the greatest accomplishment so far is the first winning of G1 race (2007 Japanese St. Leger by Asakusa Kings), when I could feel a sense of fulfilment for my work.
And the person who has inspired me the most so far is my father, Masaaki Okubo. As I mentioned, he won Triple Crown Races in 1994 with a horse named Narita Brian. Though it's very hard to win even one of the Triple Crown Races, he won all 3 races, so I think he is one of the great trainers that deserve respect.
Q: What is the next milestone for you? What is the most iconic race you would like to win?
A: As a horseman, my eternal goal is always to win a big race though I know I cannot win a big race easily even if I aim to.
The race I would most like to win is Japanese Derby which all the Japanese horsemen long to win.
Q: Please tell us about the most memorable race meetings you have attended in the Gulf region.
A: The Saudi Cup was the first time I participated in a race in the Middle East. Last year, I was supposed to participate in the Dubai World Cup with Chuwa Wizard, but unfortunately, it was cancelled at the last minute.
The most impressive race of Gulf region I’ve ever seen is the 2011 Dubai World Cup in which the winner was Japanese-trained Victoire Pisa and the runner-up was also Japanese-trained horse, Transcend. On March 11 of that year, Japan was hit by an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami, and this success of the Japanese horses gave courage and hope to many Japanese people.