SUZU, Ishikawa >> Several racehorses that have retired from the sport are living out the rest of their lives on a farm at the tip of the heavily forested Noto Peninsula.
In October, Katsuhiko Sumii, a former horse trainer for the Japan Racing Association, established a breeding environment for the animals on the grounds of Tainizu Farm, located almost 95 miles northeast of Kanazawa.
Sumii, 57, originally from Kanazawa, cares for the horses and participates in community cleanup activities with them.
The trainer earned his certification in 2000 and opened a stable of his own the following year. He became one of the top horse trainers in the country.
Horses trained by Sumii have won 39 Grade-1 races, which can have cash prizes of hundreds of millions of yen. His first horse to claim a G1 victory was Delta Blues at the Kikka Sho (a race for 3-year-old thoroughbred colts and fillies) in 2004, followed by Vodka, who in 2007 became the first filly to win the Japan Derby in 64 years.
Immediately after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Victoire Pisa brought a bit of hope to the nation by becoming the first Japanese racehorse to win the Dubai World Cup. Sumii was at the heart of that race.
However, one thought weighed heavy on Sumii’s mind. Of the roughly 7,500 racehorses born every year, only a handful live long enough past retirement to breed. While some are taken in by equestrian clubs, most of them are culled.
“Horses helped me rise to fame from nothing,” he said. “I have to return the favor.”
He also was motivated by an encounter with Horse Friends, an Osaka-based nonprofit that offers riding instruction and lessons in horse care to troubled students. Hearing about the horse therapy cemented his commitment to giving retired horses a chance to live.
While still a trainer, Sumii held charity events for the care of retired horses. It was then he realized the animals needed a space for their lifetime care. When he retired in February 2021, he returned to his Ishikawa hometown and worked on creating the proper environment for the horses.
“After my retirement, the way I interacted with horses changed completely,” he said with a laugh.
On the farm, Sumii feeds the horses as much grass as they want, allowing them to fatten up for the winter. This is a dramatic shift from his approach as a trainer, when he would dress horses in special garments to prevent weight gain.
His new endeavor coincided with the pandemic, and as people kept to themselves to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, some coped with loneliness by being with horses — and horse riding became popular.
“Everyone seeks connection,” Sumii said. “If interacting with horses has the power to ease someone’s loneliness, that’s wonderful.”
As the population of Suzu continues to decrease, Sumii hopes to revitalize the city through horse-related businesses. He has already organized a tour package.
After working in such a competitive field, Sumii has a unique outlook on the world. His goals are to realize a society in which horses and people can together bring new life to regional communities. And he believes that can start from deep within the Noto Peninsula.