There is a viewing point on Harry Sweeney’s Paca Paca Farm where the sun can be seen sinking evenly beneath the Pacific Ocean and the Hokkaido Mountains, off in the near distance, softly illuminating the evening sky and surrounding hills in a kaleidoscope of familiar light and colour.
“Land of the setting sun,” Sweeney tells me, sipping on a glass of Australian Shiraz. “I often sit here, watching that sun go down, and think how lucky I am. My wife Anne tells me it’s just as beautiful without the glass of wine. But I’m not so sure . . .”
We’re in the breeding heart and heartland of Japan’s horseracing industry, on the northernmost and most mountainous of the main islands, and I’d travelled two days and almost 10,000km to get here, and yet it might easily be an autumn evening around the Curragh, or the Boyne Valley for that matter, which may explain why Sweeney is feeling so at home.
Only it’s the first of many contradictions, and Sweeney’s lasting presence here is perhaps chief among them (as perhaps is my visit). It’s approaching 30 years since he first came to Japan, initially for six months, swapping his veterinary practice on the Curragh to manage a small stud farm on Hokkaido on the promise of a lucrative salary to beat the Irish economy of 1990.
So began a still pioneering journey. After 10 years he breached one of the country’s sacred traditions when they allowed him become the first foreigner to buy agricultural land in Japan.
A year after that he did so again in becoming the first foreigner to be granted an owner’s licence by the Japanese Racing Association (JRA), an elite club of just 2,000, and he followed that with the first overseas breeder’s licence, which later bred his success in the country’s biggest horserace of all, the Japan Derby.
“It’s a lot easier now than it was back then. Coming here, without a word of Japanese, knowing nobody, that was an adventure. Even being here nearly 30 years now, in many ways I still remain in awe of the country, the culture, and nothing surprises me anymore, or frustrates me, the same way it might someone who is new here.
“But we have satellite TV, I get home four or five times a year, and of course I subscribe to The Irish Times, albeit I haven’t actually read any of your articles.”
This wry sense of humour is also what sets Sweeney’s apart, certainly among the mostly taciturn Japanese. Even if now fluent in the language (“just not sophisticated”, he intervenes) there is a part of him they will never get, and vice versa. He’s gone from doing chicken impressions in the butchers to ordering exactly what he wants at his local sushi bar, but at age 58 it will always be a long way from Darver in Co Louth, where he grew up.
“Just the other day I was at the supermarket, looking at a pecan pie, and said to the attendant ‘I shouldn’t have a slice of that, should I?’ and she replies, ‘oh, let me check with my supervisor . . .’
“But Japan is a great country, very safe and very beautiful, with great people. And extreme but beautiful seasons. Some things are very different, but I’m here long enough to interact well, while being a little bit different from them. Japanese people are that bit more serious, whereas I’m a little more relaxed, irreverent at times, so initially they’re not always sure how to take me.
"People don't have a proper appreciation of Ireland here either. Because it's pronounced 'Irelando', people think we're Iceland, or a state in the US. Which is why I was delighted we drew Japan in the Rugby World Cup. At least now more people here know about Ireland, and that we're really bad at rugby.
“And it’s no more than 1,000 Irish people that live here at any one time, and that includes spouses and children, and teachers who would be here on a transitory contracts. Of that population too, most have Japanese spouses. I’m unique among the long-term Japanese residents, foreign men, in that I don’t have a Japanese wife. In fact there’s only one other in the Irish community and that’s Father Doyle.”
That he also uses the “we” when talking about Japan is telling and this integration has been his success as much as his horseracing achievements, though neither came easy. When Sweeney bought his first parcel of land, in 2000, he named it Paca Paca (a play on the Japanese words for the clip-clop of the horse gallop), and it’s now spread over some 550 acres, the latest and largest section of which he purchased in 2008.
Driving me around the large paddocks in his suitably bred Toyota Land Cruiser (ZX V8 edition), he reflects on some of the challenges, including those of his Dublin wife Anne and their four sons, all born in Japan, and educated in Ireland.
His home back home now is in Dunshaughlin, and even if none of his four sons have followed him into the industry, his enthusiasm remains utterly undimmed.
“To produce a good horse, to provide a good horse, to be successful at the racecourse and compete against the best, that’s the same goal. When I first came here, I knew it was a decent industry, I just had no idea of the scale of it. And initially when we came to Japan, we only expected to last a year, at most. But straightaway I could see the enormous scale of Japanese racing, and the enormous opportunity that it presented.
“Initially I was an employee, of a Japanese company, and did that for about eight years. Then I decided maybe it was time for me to see could I make a living for myself, and get some of this fantastic pie.
“It really is a sort of racing utopia. Firstly, there is still a very, very buoyant betting market. There are more bets placed in Japan each year that the United States, the UK and Ireland combined. And that betting turnover is in the region of €30 billion a year on horse racing alone.
“Part of the reason for that is we don’t have many legalised avenues for betting here. We don’t have casinos here. We may in the future but at the moment we don’t. Actually, the only avenues for betting are horse racing, motorboat racing, motorcycle racing, and cycle racing.
“What really sets Japan out, makes it so special, is that we have an enormous fan base, and a lot of very young people who are very enthusiastic about racing. If you look at the demographics, and you go to any of the Japanese racecourses, they’re full of young people.”
Japan’s online betting industry has over 3.5 million subscribers, and as well as substantial prize money in their some 3,500 races each year (over $300,000 for the average race), the JRA allows for owners to recoup over 200 per cent of their training fees (in the UK that rarely passes 25 per cent). No wonder Sweeney wanted in; no wonder Japan want to keep the foreigners out.
“So from 1998, I started to acquire some bloodstock and started to trade bloodstock, and in 2000 I purchased my first farm. Once I decided to buy the land that was a full commitment, a significant milestone.”
Easier said than done, given that old Japanese tradition against foreigners buying their land.
“I was persistent, very persistent. And I was innovative, and I was creative. You also have to be courageous in business here in Japan, and you also have to be patient, and persistent. But they are traits that many of us in Ireland have in abundance. And I was hungry for it. So I wasn’t going to give up easily.”
The next milestone was passed in 2012, when Deep Brilliante, bred on Paca Paca and deliberately left out over the winter months to improve strength and endurance, won the Japan Derby, in front of 140,000 spectators, at Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, one of the largest sporting arenas anywhere in the world.
By chance or otherwise, Sweeney had already entered Deep Brilliante’s full sibling into the JRA select sale, and six weeks later he’d sold his first million-dollar horse for $1.79 million.
He’s grown in other ways too, and is also now president of the nearby Japan Darley-Godolphin stud farm, the global horseracing organisation and already one of biggest and most successful in Hokkaido.
“The standard of racing has improved dramatically in the last 30 years here, and Japanese racehorses now are certainly on a par with the very best around the world. Dubai has a significant investment in Japan, and foreign owners from around the globe are increasingly seeking out Japanese genetic influences, and sending their mares to Japan to be mated with the best Japanese stallions.”
Evidence of that came at the end of October, when Lys Gracieux became the first Japanese winner of the €3 million Group One Cox Plate in Melbourne, on the back of another Japanese raider, Mer De Glace, winning the Caulfield Cup the previous week.
He takes me down the hill from Paca Paca to the Pacific coast road and that local sushi bar, where it seems everybody knows his name. We sit directly in front of the head chef, who carefully presents a series of delightful dishes.
“Remember this is not a contest,” says Sweeney, clearing his first plate, before turning on his computer tablet to keep an eye on a live autumn horse sale at Tattersalls, Newmarket.
“In many ways what makes Japanese racing so unique is this fan base is fundamentally or primarily interested in racing because of the horses, whereas in many European countries they’re primarily interested in horses because of the betting.”
Later, on a visit to Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu on their October Bank Holiday (to mark, incidentally, the opening of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo), the crowds of people, mostly young families as he predicts, are arriving en masse and in ample time, the feature race being the Grade Two Ireland trophy, worth a tidy $1.036 million, everyone eager it seems to get their finger in this fantastic pie.
Only Harry Sweeney could tell them all exactly how.