The fantastic journey of Japan's rising Irish son
Published 05/12/2004 | 00:11
HOKKAIDO, Japan. Harry Sweeney stands on the wooden deck outside his house. Paca Paca stud farm sprawls in front of him into the heart of breeding territory on Japan's most northerly island. The sun is setting on top of the mountains to the west. Back home in Ireland, the same sun is just about rising.
It is 14 years since Sweeney first landed in Japan. It was a long way for the vet to travel from Darver in Co Louth. Actually, it was only a fraction of the distance that he has come since. Four years ago, he became the first foreigner to be allowed buy a stud farm in Japan. A year later, he defied all precedent when the Japan Racing Association granted him a licence to own racehorses.
"Once we had the farm, it was very important for us to get an owner's licence," says Sweeney, leaning over the deck. "You can't sell your horses well unless you have a fallback position. Now, if we don't get the price that we think a horse is worth, we can put him into training. Without the owner's licence, we would have to sell everything."
But the task of getting the licence was almost insurmountable. It wasn't a coincidence that no person born outside Japan had ever achieved the feat before. Sweeney had to supply the JRA with just about every piece of relevant and irrelevant information about himself. His status in Japan, his net worth, his income, his career, his experience, his family background. It took him more than two years to put his application together.
"On the day before one of the interviews, I got a phone call from the JRA wanting to know how to pronounce Cathal - the name of one of my sons," laughs Sweeney. "I felt like telling him where to get off. What was the relevance? But it's just the Japanese way. I even had a couple of private investigators follow me around for a few days. Their attention to detail was phenomenal."
Every horse that races under JRA rules in Japan earns, on average, ?111,000 in prize money. JRA owners recoup more than 200 per cent of their training fees. Owning racehorses in Japan is a profitable business. It is not surprising that they are reluctant to allow foreigners in to plunder.
"People in Ireland were very helpful," says Harry appreciatively. "HRI's chief executive and chairman, Brian Kavanagh and Denis Brosnan, wrote letters of reference to the JRA. An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, sent a letter in the diplomatic bag to the Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Kozumi. The letter was on the JRA president's desk two days later. That was undoubtedly a huge help."
The darkening sky and the quickly cooling air hasten a retreat from the deck to the sitting room. As Harry departs temporarily to organise the coffees, you take a moment to peruse the bookshelves. A person's bookshelf can sometimes tell you more about his character than a three-hour interview.
John Grisham features prominently. Racehorse Breeding Theories, by Frank Mitchell. Veterinary Notes For Horse Owners. The Horse Whisperer, by Nicholas Evans. And Paul Murray's book - A Fantastic Journey.
We didn't know if we were buying sugar or baking soda. I still think that I washed my hair with kitchen cleaner for a couple of years
This journey began when Sweeney - working with the late Kieran Bredin on the Curragh - was told about an opportunity in Japan. He had never countenanced such a move before, but the offer was a lucrative one and the challenge was appealing. After consulting with his new wife, they decided to go.
The job was to manage Mr Akazawa's Taiki Farm. A racing and breeding operation based in Tokaichi in Hokkaido. Ask him if he really knew what was entailed, however, and he pauses.
"I really didn't," he admits slowly. "Actually, if we had known exactly what was involved, I seriously doubt if we would have gone." The image that most Westerners had of Japan in 1990 was one of high rise buildings and hustle-bustle urban living.
Truth to tell, Hokkaido is as far removed from Tokyo as Darver is from Dublin. And Tokaichi is remote even by Hokkaido standards.
"I noted that Hokkaido was on the same level of latitude as Rome," says Sweeney wryly. "I remember thinking, therefore, that it couldn't be that cold. I didn't fully appreciate the significance of the Gulf Stream when Mr Mulligan was teaching me about it in Darver National School. I did when it got down to minus 25 in Hidaka."
But the temperature was not even numbered among his concerns. Top of that list was communication. Except for the Sweeneys, there was only one other person in the locality who spoke English.
"Simple things were almost impossible," says Harry. "I didn't know where to buy oats for the horses. We found it difficult to even shop for ourselves. I remember doing chicken impressions at a counter in a meat shop. We didn‘t know if we were buying sugar or baking soda. And I still think that I washed my hair with kitchen cleaner for a couple of years."
This was the pre-internet, pre-email era. Communication with the outside world was difficult. They tried to keep in touch via the BBC World Service. And were very dependent on each other.
"Anne was great," says Harry fondly. "She mucked in in what really was a difficult situation for her. She had no experience of horses at all. But she learned as she went. She even learned how to drive a tractor. It would have been impossible for me to do it on my own. When Anne wasn't talking to me, nobody was talking to me."
When the Sweeneys arrived at Taiki, the farm had seven mares and no staff. It was Harry's first time to drive a truck. It was he who had to navigate the four-hour drive - unaided - to Shadai Farm to get the mares covered. He could only stop for food at a place with a big car park so that he didn't have to manoeuvre the truck. And when he ordered food, he ordered one item from each quadrant on the menu. He hoped that one was a main course, one was a starter and at least one was a drink. The waitress's reaction was usually the best indicator.
It wasn't long before he figured that, if he was going to make his way in Japan, he would have to learn the language. He bought books and made tapes. He practised his Japanese on the locals. When one responded: "Sorrie, me no supeaku Engurish," he worked on his pronunciation.
When his six-month contract with Taiki was up, he was asked to stay on. The first six months were the toughest, they figured. It would only get easier. The second year didn't seem so intimidating. They went to mass in Obuhiro - an hour's drive - and met some English-speaking people. They decided to stay for another year. And stayed for five.
During this time, Taiki was developing into a real force in Japanese racing. The Group 1 winners began to flow. Shinko Lovely, Taiki Fortune, Taiki Sherlock and Taiki Blizzard. They got some new mares from Ireland and America. Then, with Taiki still on the up, Sweeney was offered the job of managing the pre-training of horses at Mr Hosokawa's Machikane operation.
"When the kids came along it was tough for Anne," recalls Harry. "She was effectively house-bound. Taiki was very remote and Machikane was more centrally located. Also, it was a different job and a new challenge."
Mr Akazawa was very understanding. He said that it was like what happens in baseball. Players leave one team and join another. That's the way of the world. Harry left for Machikane with his blessing.
During Sweeney's first full year with Machikane, they had 64 winners. The most they
had before that was 20
Japanese trainers are severely restricted by the JRA in the number of horses that they can train at any one time. Therefore, the pre-training activity is essential to the success of any owner. During Sweeney's first full year with Machikane, they had 64 winners. The most they had before that was 20. Mr Hosokawa finished fifth in the table of 2,700 owners.
"I enjoyed the role a lot," says Sweeney. "I enjoyed managing the horses and going down to the trainers in Miho and Ritto. There were, admittedly, some small frustrations. I remember telling Mr Hosokawa that I thought one of his trainers was no good. He told me that he liked this trainer as a person and he wanted to send him a horse. He said that horses were my business, but his hobby. And he was right." When his three-year contract with Machikane was up, Sweeney came to a crossroads.
His eldest of four sons, Colm, was six and he wanted his kids to be educated in Ireland. They decided that Anne would go home with the boys, and they bought a house in Dunshaughlin.
"I wasn't sure what the next step was for me," he confides. "I wanted to be in Ireland with Anne and the kids, but my strengths were in Japan. The one-eyed man is always king in the land of the blind. I started buying some mares in Japan and bringing them back to Ireland or America. It was going well, but I wasn't sure if I could make a living at it."
Then came a pivotal moment. He wanted to buy a filly at the Hidaka Breeders' Association yearling sale in Japan. A half-sister to Irish Guineas winner Hula Angel. He went to the HBA and told them so. After much consternation, they told him that they would prefer it if he didn't buy her in his own name, as he wasn't a member of the HBA. He couldn't be a member because he didn't own a farm.
Then the process began. How could he go about buying a farm? How could he get an owner's licence? Sweeney began to ask the questions. The answers were slow to be presented, but when they arrived, they were worth the wait.
The sun is now fully set in Japan. You smile at the irony. You notice another book on the shelf beside the fireplace. A white one, in the corner. Japan - An Attempt At Interpretation. Harry Sweeney could have written it.
* Donn McClean is Assistant
Editor with the Irish Field