More than two years since a devastating earthquake shook Japan to its core, the nation and the Thoroughbred racing industry there has recovered—with the help of its own.
But as the nation prepares to host the 33rd Japan Cup (Jpn-I) on Nov. 24, the 9.0 earthquake is a graphic reminder that Japan's racetracks must be ready when another big one hits.
"This earthquake was a very big tragedy for all of us in Japan," said Hiroaki Nishikawa, general manager of the international department for the Japan Racing Association, speaking through an interpreter, his assistant Sachiko Terauchi. "It was so devastating. You hope they never happen, but in Japan, we have a big one every 10 to 20 years. We have to accept that. So we need to build strong buildings to resist earthquakes and always be ready."
Racing contributed more than $57 million to relief efforts after the Tohoku quake that struck March 11, 2011, JRA officials said. In addition, the association offered shelter for about two months at badly damaged Fukushima Racecourse to more than 500 refugees displaced by the quake and a nuclear radiation scare that followed.
Almost 16,000 people died in the quake in northeast Japan and resulting tsunami. Damage from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, about 100 kilometers from Fukishima, brought more fear for months afterward.
The JRA came under criticism for resuming racing soon after the disaster. But government officials were encouraging the resumption, Nishikawa said.
"Some people asked, 'Why do you host gambling and leisure (activities) during time of disaster and suffering?'" Nishikawa said. "We asked, 'What can we do for the earthquake stricken area?'"
JRA donated heavily to the relief effort, he said, more than 5.7 billion yen. That's in addition to the 10% takeout that goes to government taxes.
Racing took a direct hit from the quake. The race course in Fukushima suffered about $40 million in damages. Part of the grandstand's roof collapsed and other parts of the facility were destroyed. It took a full year before the track could be reopened.
"It wasn't just the damage; there was a shortage of electricity (after the loss of the nuclear power plant)," Nishikawa said. "So, we couldn't reopen right away."
The racetrack also served as sanctuary for hundreds of displaced residents from surrounding neighborhoods.
For more than a month, they lived in jockey quarters and other rooms. When a nuclear radiation scare followed the quake two months later, the refugees returned for another extended stay.
"All JRA racetracks are designated as evacuation points," Nishikawa said. "We stock water, food, supplies for any catastrophe—earthquake, floods, typhoons."
Fear of radiation also caused more complications before Fukushima could reopen. The turf course was scraped and replaced. Every inch of the grandstand and stabling area were cleansed.
"We had to be mindful of radiation dangers," he said. "You just can't see it. The whole prefecture was under the influence of the power plant. The racetrack is about 100 kilometers from the power plant, but everybody living in Fukushima was worried about the danger."
Fukushima is in the heart of Japan's horse country, he noted: "This is one of our main breeding areas. People have been racing horses there for a thousand years." But the Thoroughbred industry was spared the devastation, Nishikawa said.
Horse racing became a symbol of the return to normalcy for the hardstruck area. Multiple champion Jockey Yutaka Take and other riders became part of a major public relations campaign, welcoming patrons back to the track.
"One year later, we're still explaining to people that the track is completely safe," Nishikawa said. But fans have come back, he noted.
Other racing organizagtions also contributed to Japan's aid. Breeders' Cup was among those making a substantial donation.
"After the earthquake, horse racing was able to contribute to the whole Japan," he said. "We are grateful for everyone's support."