Updated: Thursday, December 2, 2004 8:30 AM
Posted: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 10:10 AM
Though its brightest days may be in the past, the Japan Racing Association has decided to allow a little more sun to shine on a sport and industry that for the past 50 years has virtually been closed to outsiders.
The JRA, celebrating its 50th anniversary as the governing body of horse racing in Japan, recently announced a dramatic opening of its stakes program. Beginning in 2005, 60 stakes--46 of them graded--will be opened to international runners. That number will nearly double by 2007, when foreign horses will be eligible to compete in 111 JRA stakes.
The move, long overdue, was opposed by some Japanese breeders and owners who feared an invasion of international runners would end what they saw as a very good thing. The lucrative purse program developed by the JRA has been the envy of the world, and for years it
fueled a strong demand for Japanese-bred horses, irrespective of their abilities.
Under international pressure for its protectionist policies, however, the JRA slowly cracked open the door to outside horses. The first move came in 1981 with the creation of the Japan Cup, an invitational that allowed a fixed number of horses from abroad to compete for what was then the world's richest prize. The JRA next began opening races for horses bred outside of Japan but unraced elsewhere and owned by JRA-licensed owners.
That was good news for the American and European commercial markets, where Japanese owners soon began to look for weanlings, yearlings, and 2-year-old racing prospects. The move also sent a signal to Japanese breeders that they had better improve the quality of their stock. Hence, in the late 1980s, Japanese breeders, buoyed by a strong yen, made substantial investments in some of the world's best broodmares, stallions, and stallion prospects.
In 1992, the JRA developed a long-term and slow-moving strategy for internationalization. One of its goals was acceptance by the International Cataloguing Standards Committee of Japan as a "part one" country in the book that defines international graded/group stakes and black-type rules. Because of its restrictive policies, Japan was relegated to "part two" of the book, with most of its black-type and graded races not recognized in sale catalogues around the world.
The lack of recognition diminishes a sale-catalogue page for a broodmare that may have produced a Japanese classic winner but whose produce record will not show a graded or group race designation for the victory. Another result is misleading or incomplete sire statistics.
The ICSC was not impressed by a JRA plan that took a dozen years to expand from two international races to 24. Thus, Japan remains a "part two" country. That could change soon, though, thanks in large part to the JRA decision to open so many more races over the next few years.
Realistically, it is doubtful many owners will ship horses from Europe, Australasia, or North America. The JRA is finding it difficult enough to attract international runners for the Japan Cup and Japan Cup Dirt, two races whose grade I status is recognized by the ICSC. Keep in mind the JRA pays all travel expenses for horses and their connections for those two events, something they won't do for other races.
There are still plenty of restricted races in Japan, just as there are American races restricted to horses bred in California, New York, or Texas. But there is one last restriction, a significant one, the JRA may have to deal with before getting the part one ICSC status it seeks.
Currently, it is virtually impossible for anyone other than a Japanese citizen or resident to get anything other than a temporary owner's license to compete at JRA tracks. That, too, must change. If those clouds of restriction part, so should those that have kept Japan from being on equal terms with the rest of the racing and breeding world.
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