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Sunday, May 12, 2002

Straight from the trainer's mouth

Staff writer

Japan's racing world is steeped in tradition. Many trainers are former jockeys or come from long-established racing families. Nobuhiro Suzuki, 42, is one of a new breed of trainer: outsiders, usually highly educated. Suzuki gained his training license in 1997 after working as a veterinarian, groom and assistant trainer. He is also a skilled equestrian. Based at Miho Training Center in Ibaraki Prefecture, he currently ranks No. 4 by wins at Miho, No. 10 overall. Since his debut, his horses have notched 68 wins in 687 races.

What is it that attracts you to riding and racing?

In equestrian sports and racing, your partner, of course, is an animal. And in these sports you can't succeed by effort alone. You also can't succeed with skill alone. Mutual effort, by the human and the horse, is necessary. I think that's what I find attractive.

What particular things are you looking at from the stands during training?

Actually, I don't watch from the stands very much. You can only see the horse's movement from there. You can't understand its breathing, so I like to get up close. Also, I don't place too much importance on the clock. I like to see how a horse is feeling, if it's tired or not feeling well. For that you need to get up close.

Is there a lot that you can't tell unless you actually ride the horse?

If a horse has pain somewhere you can tell that when you ride. These are things that you can only understand if you take up the reins and feel through the contact and by paying close attention to the horse.

Does a horse's personality have an effect on its training or on the training you will give a horse?

A horse's personality and character are crucial to its training. If you can quickly grasp a horse's personality you can teach it in the way that will allow it to learn quickly. Not only with horses, but with dogs and all animals that have a close relationship with humans, if you ignore their characters and personalities and try to treat them all the same, you are definitely going to fail.

A quiet, meek horse, for example, one that is calm and depends on people, will be quick to learn because of its trust in people. If you try to teach a horse that is a bit rebellious or fearful in the same way as the meek, quiet, trusting type, you are going to have problems. What you have to do is to take things back a level. For example, if you're teaching jumping and you have a horse that isn't bothered by jumping then it's going to jump willingly. But if you have a horse that's fearful of jumping or very wary of things then you have to very patiently and carefully teach the horse that jumping is not something to be afraid of.

The mental aspect of training, much more than the physical, is extremely important. Seeing if a horse can run a furlong in 15 seconds is a part of a trainer's work but if you mistakenly push a horse that's not ready for that kind of training then it'll lead to injury. On the other hand, if you have a horse that is ready to run and you're overly cautious with it then it's not going to reach it's full potential. Knowing when and how much, having insight into these kind of things is the most important work of the trainer.

Can you tell more or less what kind of race is going to suit a horse before it debuts?

Yes, more or less. First of all you look at the bloodline. It's not a sure thing but it is important. Next you look at the horse's personality. A horse that gets very excited running is one that I naturally would debut in a sprint race because of its hot personality over a calm, easygoing horse. If a horse is quiet and calm, even if its bloodline indicates it would be suited to a sprint, I would put it in a mile or mid-distance race to begin with. If its bloodline shows it's for mid-distance racing and the horse doesn't have a hot personality then I would start it over a long distance.

Choosing horses is one of the most important aspects of being a trainer. How do you go about doing that?

It's very, very difficult. After becoming a trainer I made frequent trips to the breeding grounds in Hokkaido, and looked at lots and lots of horses. Slowly, I started to get an idea of what to look for. I started to get a feel for what I liked and didn't like and made notes of those points. Then I'd see how a horse with those points did in racing and slowly learned where I'd been right and where I'd been wrong. That's how I learned bit by bit.

Can you give me an idea of just what it is you're looking for?

I guess everyone is the same at the start, they're looking to see if the legs are bent or straight and if the horse's overall balance looks good. But there's what I guess you could call a "feeling," a moment of inspiration. This is extremely important. It's something you can't explain. In the end it comes down to simply whether you like the horse or don't. You build on your experiences.

What about buying horses overseas?

I think the horse business is very fair in the States. In the U.S. horses increase in value as they mature. In Japan, where more than 8,000 foals are born every year, it's the reverse. They're the most expensive when they're born and gradually decrease in value. I think the American way is much fairer for the buyer. The more the horse matures the more you can assess its quality and the more you can pay for it. I think that's a lot fairer than in Japan, where a high price is affixed to a newborn about which you know nothing.

Unfortunately, European and American agents have far better eyes for stock than Japanese agents do. The work of an agent is highly regarded abroad, unlike in Japan.

How do you select your riders and what do you look for in a jockey?

First, it's a matter of whether the jockey suits the horse. Jockeys have distances and types of horse personalities they work well with too. Of course, top riders can ride anything well. When I'm asking a top jockey I don't think about anything in any great detail. I will let a younger, less-experienced jockey ride if I think he fits the horse. They need experience so I try to give them as many opportunities as possible.

Tell me about owners.

I think there are basically two types of owners. One is the type with whom you have a relationship in order to mutually profit, in a business sense. And then you have the owners who are in it as a hobby, who aren't so concerned with whether they win or lose. They're the type who want to see their horse in a race. There's a lot of that type. I can get on well with both. An owner invests a lot of money in raising a horse of a quality bloodline and to see that horse win and to be able to celebrate together is really a joy.

What is your dream?

To win the Kentucky Derby.

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