Japanese horse racing has had something of a coming-out party in 2005. Earlier this year, Cesario invaded American shores from her Japanese homeland and overpowered a top-class field of fillies and mares in Hollywood Park's American Oaks (gr. IT). Reigning Japanese Horse of the Year Zenno Rob Roy was sent to England, where he was nailed on the finish line to narrowly lose the Juddmonte International Stakes (Eng-I) to Electrocutionist.
European-based Alkaased was the winner of this year's Japan Cup (Jpn-I) over Japanese-bred Heart's Cry in a thrilling finish at Tokyo Race Course Nov. 27, but the outcome might have been reversed if the jockeys were switched and Frankie Dettori was on the runner-up instead of the winner. Zenno Rob Roy, last year's Japan Cup winner, finished third. Even in defeat, Japan stands to gain: It's widely expected that Alkaased will enter stud there next year. His sire, Kingmambo, has achieved great success with his progeny in Japan.
Japanese runners have had previous success in international races from Hong Kong to Dubai, but Cesario and Zenno Rob Roy confirmed in the minds of many that the Japanese racing and breeding industry has arrived, in a big way, on the world stage.
But don't take my word for it. Clive Brittain, the veteran British trainer who has kept a sharp eye on the international racing scene for many years, said this about the Japanese horse industry on the eve of the 25th Japan Cup.
"It's been 19 years now since I brought a horse over and won the Japan Cup, and much has changed," Brittain said. "The horses here may be the world's best. The Europeans competing this year are group I winners, and it will be no easy thing for any one of them to win."
Brittain made no mention of the two American-based horses in the race. Both Better Talk Now and Irish-bred King's Drama are grade I winners, too, but they were never a factor. In fact, the last American-based runner to win the Japan Cup was the Charlie Whittingham-trained Golden Pheasant in 1991. American-based horses won four of the first 11 editions of the Japan Cup (including two before the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984), and none of the last 14. Only three of the last 14 winners were bred in the United States: Alkaased, 2003 winner Tap Dance City (by Pleasant Tap), and 1998 El Condor Pasa (also by Kingmambo).
It's no accident the Japanese racing and breeding industry is improving. Fueled by the world's highest year-round purse structure and a nationalized racing industry that moves with a singular purpose, Japanese breeders over the last 20 years have made a substantial investment to upgrade their stock. The investment is paying dividends.
While American breeders and owners have become more and more enamored with speed, the Japanese have focused on producing classic runners, those capable of winning the best races at distances from 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 miles. In addition, medication is prohibited in Japanese racing, filtering from breeding production those horses that might have succeeded on the racetrack with the help of certain drugs. The same cannot be said of the American racing and breeding industry.
Even in the commercial market, the Japanese are avoiding some of the factors that drive Americans. The Japan Racing Association recently began a sale of 2-year-olds in training, offering horses the JRA bought a year earlier from small breeders. Instead of being pushed to run the fastest quarter-mile possible as American consignors feel compelled to do, Japanese 2-year-olds are barred from running an eighth of a mile in less than 13 seconds during sale previews. Horsemen rely on their eyes and instincts instead of a stopwatch to make their decisions.
I doubt there is any turning back. Japanese horses will be an even bigger factor in international racing in 2006 and beyond.