Spurred to take action by a troubled economy and the need for more investment in horse racing, leaders of the sport in Japan are seriously discussing opening up the world’s most lucrative racing program to foreign-based owners.
   
The unprecedented step could be taken within two years, although there might be restrictions imposed to protect and reward domestic owners and breeders.
    
Representatives of several farms selling horses at the Japan Racing Horse Association select sale, the nation’s elite three-day market for yearlings and foals that opened July 14, and other officials confirmed the ongoing talks that could radically change Japanese racing.
    
At the same time, Sheikh Mohammed, who pioneered major foreign investment in racing and breeding in Japan with his Darley Japan operation, is preparing to receive a new Japan Racing Association license for the business, although that might take another 17 months under complex JRA rules.
    
Discussions for both the general rule change and Darley Japan’s new license, while widely known, are regarded as very sensitive by Japanese officials who did not want to be quoted.
    
Yet at least some of the new international buyers on the JRHA scene made clear that the potential changes had led them to the sale. Australian owner and breeder Nathan Tinkler, who bought five yearlings July 14, said he hopes to be able to establish a base in Japan, perhaps in alignment with Japan’s top breeder, Katsumi Yoshida of Northern Farm.
   
Yoshida invited Tinkler to the JRHA sale after the latter bought some of Yoshida’s Australian-bred horses, Tinkler said.
    
“It’s a good opportunity,” Tinkler noted, adding that if he can eventually race horses on the JRA circuit, the purses make racing a more enticing commercial proposition than it is in other countries.
    
Meanwhile, Darley Japan is regaining some of the momentum lost when former director Riki Takahashi resigned last year, which, under Japanese rules, led to the operation losing the JRA license for which he had worked more than a decade to obtain.
    
"We’re looking forward to participating more fully in Japanese racing and breeding in the future,” said John Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed’s bloodstock manager, while attending the JRHA sale.
    
Darley is registered as a buyer at the sale, but since it currently does not have a JRA license, the organization is expected to be more focused on selling. Darley had 10 yearlings and 10 foals entered in the JRHA catalog.
    
Ken Mishima, 36, whose family has been involved in breeding in Japan and who previously worked for Three Chimneys Farm and for the late Robert Scanlon’s breaking and training business, is serving as director of Darley Japan Farm, and a new license application has been made in his name. Under current rules, he would have to be in his job, which he started in January, for two years before the license could be granted.
   
Spokesperson Hanako Sonobe said Darley Japan currently operates six farms on the island of Hokkaido and has 53 employees, 54 mares, 29 yearlings and 46 foals under its umbrella, as well as seven stallions at its stud and four stallions located at other studs.
    
Darley Japan also maintains a stable consisting of 23 racehorses spread among seven trainers that currently can compete in the National Association of Racing circuit, which has smaller purses than JRA racing.

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