It is a sad irony that, thanks to the attentions of COVID-19, perhaps the greatest season ever in the history of Japanese racing has been played out in front of virtually empty stands.
The restrictions are gradually being eased but after a lottery for which there were more than 50,000 applications, there will be only 4,384 fans in the reserved seats at Tokyo racecourse on Sunday to witness this extraordinary behind-closed-doors year of wonders as it reaches a crescendo with a star-studded Japan Cup featuring three Triple Crown winners. If you include the fillies, that is.
In Japan they are already labelling it ‘the race of the decade’. That said, even in such a year as this, it may be an issue of some minor concern that near-white Arc also-ran Way To Paris is the sole overseas contender in the 40th running of what was designed as Japan’s most prestigious international contest – and this after a 2019 edition that, for the first time ever, had no foreign-trained horses. At least Oisin Murphy rode the winner, Suave Richard.
But emphasis here must rest on the word ‘minor’, because the 40th edition could hardly offer a more enticing prospect as superstar three-year-olds Contrail and Daring Tact – both unbeaten after completing Japanese Triple Crowns for colts and fillies respectively – face off against the nation’s equine darling, Almond Eye. She won the fillies’ Triple Crown a couple of years ago before breaking the track record in the Japan Cup.
Surely even the most one-eyed xenophobe among European racing fans might find their cockles warmed at such a thrilling prospect. Contrail, for instance, has never tasted defeat in seven career starts; the son of the legendary Deep Impact is currently world number one according to the Thoroughbred Racing Commentary’s exclusive global rankings after his Triple Crown sweep.
Though Japan’s three-year-old fillies are generally considered a cut below their male counterparts, Daring Tact is unbeaten in five and gets a handy sex allowance.
Then we come to Almond Eye, aboard whom Christophe Lemaire, on the verge of his fourth successive JRA jockeys’ title, will be bidding to win his fourth Grade 1 event in a four-week spell – no big deal? Well, it is when you consider they happen only once a week, and there are always double-figure fields full of top-class horses.
Almond Eye is the apple of Lemaire’s eye, as they say, and no wonder. The five-year-old is having probably the final start of her record-breaking career as she seeks her ninth success at the top level. No other Japanese horse has ever won eight G1s on turf (seven at home plus the Dubai Turf). There have always been stamina doubts about her at 1m4f – but that didn’t stop her scoring emphatically with a tremendous performance in 2018.
Lack of any overseas involvement in 2019 was widely cited as a reason for last year’s race drawing only 80,826 paying customers to Tokyo racecourse, which can hold nearly three times as many. While you’ve got to love that ‘only’ applying to the sort of attendance for which most racing jurisdictions would commit murder, this was by some measure the lowest in the event’s history; well down from the 98,988 in 2018, and more than six figures adrift of the 1995 high of 187,524, when German-trained Lando scored under Michael Roberts.
Also known as Fuchu, Tokyo boasts the biggest capacity of any racecourse in the world at 223,000 – that’s 58,000 more than Churchill Downs, for example, which can hold 165,000 including the infield! At 196,517 for the Tokyo Yushun (Derby) of May 1990, Tokyo’s record attendance is actually well short of its capacity.
Rest assured, however, amid rampant anticipation for this Sunday’s race, that if the public had been allowed en masse, the colossal nine-floor Fuji View grandstand – Mount Fuji easily visible on a clear day – would have been bursting at the seams.
In truth, it probably wasn’t the absence of any overseas runners that compromised the 2019 running to some extent – indeed, more Japanese betting money is always spent on the end-of-season grand prix, the Arima Kinen.
With a prize fund of ¥648 million (about £4.65m), the Japan Cup is the country’s richest event but it is the Arima Kinen, always a purely domestic affair, that strikes more of a chord with the locals as a ‘people’s race’. Think Grand National.
Be that as it may, the 2019 Japan Cup was a relatively humdrum affair, largely minus any outstanding star quality. Not so 2020, when the big three are augmented by a phalanx of fellow Classic winners such as Makahiki, Kiseki and World Premiere plus Hong Kong hero Glory Vase and last year’s runner-up Curren Bouquetd’or, a filly who has an unfortunate habit of finishing second.
While it is a shame for those of us who love global racing that the Japan Cup is no longer the draw it used to be for overseas horses, in some respects that is because it is a victim of its own success.
Begun with the objective of raising the level of the nation’s racing through competition with some of the world’s best, the Japan Cup has become an unequal task for any adventurous visitors, such is the staggering improvement in the quality of the home stock.
The real sea change came in the 1980s, when the magnetic power of the yen produced an exodus of powerful stallion talent from Europe and America to Japan, headed by the late, great Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner. His son, the legendary Deep Impact, has continued the line to following generations.
Japan’s talent pool was never more obvious to international eyes than in 2019, when their horses won eight G1s away from home – Almond Eye’s Dubai Turf, Deirdre’s famous Nassau Stakes win, a Caulfield Cup/Cox Plate double via Mer De Glace and Lys Gracieux plus four wins in Hong Kong.
Given their prowess with middle-distance horses in particular, it is hard to conceive quite how easy the pickings used to be for overseas horses in the Japan Cup, which went to visitors eight times in the first decade of its 37 runnings.
The tide has turned to the extent that no European-trained horse has even made the frame since the Sir Michael Stoute-trained Conduit in 2009; the last overseas victory came via the Luca Cumani-trained Alkaased under Frankie Dettori in 2005. You can’t go to Tokyo armed with equine peashooters.
With all that in mind, and looking at the strength of this year’s field, it is probably not speaking out of turn to suggest that Way To Paris – admirable G1-winning seven-year-old that he is – will be hard pushed to trouble the scorers in Tokyo, where the last French-trained winner was Le Glorieux in 1987.
Never mind. Even if it is a mainly domestic affair, this is a Japan Cup not to be missed. Set your alarm clocks for Sunday morning.