From Arao To Royal Ascot: The Unsung Japanese Hero Who Put The Polish On Asfoora

Asfoora’s King Charles III Stakes win was a far cry from exercising low level gallopers on the sand at the NAR’s long lost Arao racecourse for Japanese horseman Shinya ‘Shiny’ Mori.

From Arao To Royal Ascot: The Unsung Japanese Hero Who Put The Polish On Asfoora

Asfoora’s King Charles III Stakes win was a far cry from exercising low level gallopers on the sand at the NAR’s long lost Arao racecourse for Japanese horseman Shinya ‘Shiny’ Mori.

Shinya ‘Shiny’ Mori exploded his usually cool demeanour with a jubilant celebration of unexpected animation. Who could blame him?

“He is always very calm when one of ‘his’ horses wins; he never shows he is excited,” says his wife Tomomi.

This time was different: this was a one in a million moment. As Mori stood just beyond the winning post, alongside Chenelle Ellis, he found it was impossible to resist the raw impulse to roar and shout and wave his arms.

“I was screaming and jumping,” Mori says. “I couldn’t believe it. Yeah, that was the biggest thrill.”

Mori is Asfoora’s regular trackwork rider, Ellis is the mare’s strapper, and Asfoora had just powered to victory in the King Charles III Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Along with Ellis and trainer Henry Dwyer, Mori was part of the team that had travelled all the way from Ballarat, Australia to help Asfoora become the least likely of all Australia’s eight Royal Ascot winners.

As unlikely, in fact, as a work rider from a defunct NAR (National Association of Racing) track in Japan’s provincial far south bobbing up in top hat and tails to celebrate his role in winning a Group 1 at one of the world’s biggest racing occasions.

Shinya Mori, Asfoora's groom
SHINYA MORI / Royal Ascot // 2024 /// Photo supplied

Mori, 44, is the son of a civil servant, a Kagoshima city council official with no connection to horses or the ‘sport of kings.’ He was a fan, a boy who dreamed of being part of the sport he became fixated with through a combination of watching his heroes on TV and playing the Japanese horse racing video game Derby Stallion.  

He was 16 when he started riding ponies and worked his High School summer holidays at a small local stud, learning the basics of riding and what it takes to care for horses day-to-day.

“I was a fan, I was just interested,” he says, but then he graduated school and took a job at the farm. Three months later, he was in the race track mix.

“I quit and went to work at Arao racecourse,” he says.

There he was taught how to ride work on the sharp sand track and began to really develop the skills that would eventually prove valuable to Dwyer’s team.

“It was very enjoyable to work at Arao but there were not many good horses,” he says warmly, remembering those turn-of-the-century days and those low-grade race horses. “It was a good place to learn things, but unfortunately the racecourse was struggling and had financial difficulties.”

Arao racecourse was, like Kagoshima, also on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and it was located more than 200 kilometres to the north of Mori’s home. He arrived there at a time when attendances and turnover in Japan were dropping from the strong turnover and attendance figures posted in the early 1990s.

The track shut down in December 2011, the year the NAR annual turnover dipped to a low of ¥314 billion, by which time Mori was already living a new life in Australia, riding track work in a thoroughbred town: Ballarat, Victoria.

“I left Japan in 2006 for a working holiday there and I stayed,” he says. “I worked with a Japanese trainer Go Shigemi and I loved it, I stayed five or six years with that stable. I’ve always stayed in Ballarat, I loved it so I stayed and I then worked for Simon Morrish and now Henry Dwyer.”

ASFOORA / G1 King Charles III Stakes // Ascot /// 2024 //// Photo by Bryn Lennon

He is also racing manager and bloodstock manager for Rising Sun Syndicate, which is introducing Japanese owners and horses to Australian racing.

“We bring in Japanese stayers, long distance horses, because in Australia the sprinters are so strong but their long-distance horses are not, so the Japanese stayers have a good chance in Australia,” he says.

When he first heard Dwyer’s bold Royal Ascot plan for Asfoora, he says he wondered if it was a good idea. “She’s a good Group horse but she’d never won a Group 1 and that’s next level,” he explains. “But she did it. It was a great job.”

A great job by Dwyer, by Ellis who looked after Asfoora in England for two months, and by Mori who arrived 10 days out and whose safe, familiar hands put on the final touches on the Newmarket gallops.

Mori had seen nothing like the 2,500 acres of Newmarket Heath with its 14 miles of artificial track and 50 miles of grass gallops divided into multitudinous strips of all types: straight, curving, uphill, flat, undulating, you name it, all across managed heathland framed by verdant trees and bushes.    

“I never worked at a training centre in Japan, only at Arao on the sand track, that’s all I knew before I moved to Australia and here it is very different,” he says.

And the most unexpected difference?  

“In England there is no rail where they train,” he says. “I was a bit nervous because I had never ridden on a track (gallop) with no rail.

“Asfoora can shy. She’s a nice ride, nothing wrong, but she’s so quick to shy if she sees something, like people beside the track, or even a tree, anything moving, and you never know when it could happen.

“Sometimes when she went to the gallops, if she came to a branch or a stick on the ground, she wouldn’t pass. She’d stand and look at the stick, shake the stick, then she knows there’s nothing to be scared of, she walks through. Sometimes she’s very strange.”

Asfoora and Shinya Mori
ASFOORA, SHINYA MORI, HENRY DWYER / Newmarket // 2024 /// Photo by Henry Dwyer Racing

There was no way Dwyer would be putting his stable star on the one strip Mori really wanted to ride, the famous Warren Hill. But thanks to local trainer Harry Eustace, that dream came true, too.

“Asfoora was at Amy Murphy’s stables so I worked her early morning then I worked for Amy and Harry Eustace, they gave me some rides for my experience on the gallops, which was very good of them. I hadn’t been to Warren Hill and Asfoora was not going there, so Harry Eustace gave me one ride at the Warren Hill track (gallop): that was a very good experience for me,” he says.

“That surface rides very deep with a good cushion, it’s a really nice track for horses. And you get a good view at the top; after the work you walk around through the bushes and the horse calms and settles.”

After the excitement of Asfoora, Mori was soon calm and settled himself. The TV cameras picked up a few fist bumps and a broad smile as he and Ellis led the mare off the track, but then the composed deportment returned, he handed over the rein and slipped into the background as the mare and her connections strode on into the regal unsaddling arena.

Job done, back to Ballarat, back to his role as trackwork rider in his adopted home. But Japan and his grounding at Arao are never far from his thoughts.    

David Morgan is Chief Journalist at Idol Horse. As a sports mad young lad in County Durham, England, horse racing hooked him at age 10. He has a keen knowledge of Hong Kong and Japanese racing after nine years as senior racing writer and racing editor at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. David has also worked in Dubai and spent several years at the Racenews agency in London. His credits include among others Racing Post, ANZ Bloodstock News, International Thoroughbred, TDN, and Asian Racing Report.

View all articles by David Morgan.

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