IT WASN’T so long ago that the Japan Cup wasn’t just the richest turf race in the world, it was also the most international.
With a purse of 648 million yen (about £4.6m), Sunday’s 39th edition at Tokyo racecourse – due to be broadcast on Sky Sports Racing – remains lavishly endowed, still in the world’s top ten in purse terms despite currency fluctuations and the creation of various new moneybags races elsewhere around the globe.
What it is not, though, is anything like as international as it used to be. In fact, this latest renewal of one of the world’s showpiece international races at the world’s biggest racecourse could hardly be less international as there is not a single overseas-trained runner in the double-figure field.
Watch the 2019 Japan Cup live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 24th November at 6.40 am.
Times really have changed, because no race on the planet can boast a roll of honour as cosmopolitan as the Japan Cup, a global race virtually before such a concept existed.
Since the inaugural running in 1981, the Japan Cup has been won by horses from eight different countries covering four continents, with the host nation being joined by the US, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, Germany and Italy.
However, a race once marked for export on an annual basis hasn’t had an overseas winner since the Luca Cumani-trained Alkaased touched off Heart’s Cry in 2005 under Frankie Dettori. Conduit, in 2009, was the last European-trained horse even to make the frame, such is the strength of the domestic middle-distance crop.
Indeed, looking at Japan Cup results since the turn of the century, it is hard to conceive quite how easy the pickings used to be for such a lucrative prize, which went to visitors eight times in the first decade of its 38 runnings.
Doubtless the advent of lucrative alternative opportunities in other places, notably Hong Kong and Dubai, has served to dilute the strength of the raiding parties but that is only part of the story.
Put simply, the Japan Cup is just harder – much harder – to win nowadays, such has been the dramatic improvement in the quality of the nation’s domestic stock after decades of concerted effort to ensure the nation can dine at racing’s top table. You can’t go there armed with pea-shooters.
Even though Japan’s state-funded industry was far from immune to the worldwide economic downturn after the turn of the century, understandably the nation remains the envy of most other racing jurisdictions.
According to figures published by the Japan Racing Association (JRA), annual betting turnover is nowhere near its 1997 high of four trillion yen (about £30bn), while prize-money is below the record 120bn yen (£912m) of 2000. Such things are relative, however: at 114.8bn yen (£820m), prize-money remains superlative, while betting turnover is back on the up, with last year’s figure of just over 2.8tn yen (about £20bn) by far the highest in the world.
Moreover, even if attendance figures have halved in the last 20 years to about 6.2m in 2018, the sport remains hugely popular in Japan – probably second only to baseball – as is sure to be illustrated via another massive crowd on Sunday at Tokyo racecourse.
Also known as Fuchu after the western suburb in which it is located, this spectacular venue has the biggest capacity of any in the world at 223,000 following a seven-year renovation project completed in April 2007; that said, the record gate was 196,517 for the Tokyo Yushun (Derby) in May 1990.
The creation of the Japan Cup in 1981 marked the first stirrings of a more outward-looking attitude in the Japanese racing industry, previously a closed shop with overseas runners barred.
The new invitation race, which produced a 1-2-3 for North American visitors led home by Cash Asmussen on Mairzy Doates, was designed to help raise the level of Japan’s horses and horsemen.
Even more significantly, it was soon to be accompanied by a sea-change in Japanese breeding and racing when almost unlimited financial muscle prompted an exodus of potential stallion talent from Europe to Japan. For a while, it felt as if no sooner had a Derby winner passed the post at Epsom than it was on a plane bound for the Far East.
But it was an American horse who was to be the founding father of Japan’s racing miracle in the shape of 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, celebrated for engendering a matchless blend of class, speed and agility in his offspring and untouched for several years as champion sire before his death in 2002.
Such immense levels of investment in the breeding industry over several decades produced the desired result, improving Japanese stock out of all recognition. Japan has been utterly transformed from a relative outpost to a global powerhouse.
With special emphasis on the nature’s ultra-powerful middle-distance division, nowhere is this dramatic improvement more visible than in the international arena.
Whereas Japanese horses used to be a novelty outside their own shores, now they are a welcome regular feature on the major global stages, generally to be feared wherever and whenever they show up – a series of notorious near-misses in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe notwithstanding.
On the other hand, just consider major Japanese winners in 2018 alone: Almond Eye in Dubai and Deirdre at Goodwood, Mer De Glace and Lys Gracieux at the Melbourne Spring Carnival. Not too shabby, is it?
“They produce really, really good horses,” says champion jockey Oisin Murphy, who rode Deirdre to win the Nassau Stakes after a successful spell in Japan last winter. “I think the next couple of years they’re going to dominate, particularly over a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half,” adds the rider, who is back in Japan now.
Mind you, if Japanese horses usually command respect away from home, they are now supremely hard to beat on their own patch, which is why the Japan Cup has become anything but a gimme for overseas visitors.
Things really began to change in the mid-1990s, when it took mainly top-class horses like the exalted Stoute pair Singspiel and Pilsudski to thwart the home contingent. Since then, a list of Japan Cup winners reads like a who’s who of the nation’s best-known horses, headed by the legendary Triple Crown winner, the late Deep Impact, generally regarded in Japan as the greatest of all time, and last year’s winner Almond Eye, who smashed the race record time in a stunning performance.
She misses Sunday’s race in favour of the Hong Kong Cup but 2017 victor Cheval Grand lines up again in a line-up also featuring no fewer than three Tokyo Yushun (Derby) winners, namely Makahiki, Rey De Oro and Wagnerian plus the 2017
That said, it isn’t only the horses that makes Japanese racing such a fantastic experience. I vividly recall speaking to Ryan Moore during one visit to the Japan Cup a few years ago as he gazed up at the colossal nine-floor Fuju View grandstand in front of a parade ring festooned in homemade banners lauding heroes equine and human.
“This is how racing should be run really,” mused Moore. “They are very lucky – they do everything the correct way. The racing is well run, they have nice horses and great prize-money – and it makes for very competitive racing.”
A little bit too competitive for international runners this year, it seems.