Japan Cup is still calling, but America may have stopped listening.
At least that's the way officials of the Japan Racing Association view the situation these days. The United States will be unrepresented in the $5.7 million international race Nov. 24 at Tokyo Race Course for the second year in a row. And an American-based runner hasn't been a serious contender since the Neil Drysdale-trained Sarafan was nipped by Falbrav in 2002.
As America has declined in the Japan Cup, the host nation's fortunes have improved dramatically. United States horses have won this race four times, but not since the Charles Whittingham trainee Golden Pheasant did so in 1991. Japan has taken the past seven renewals of the prestigious 1 1/2-mile event, ranked as one of the top 10 Pattern races in the world.
The goal when the race was started in 1981 was to bring Japan parity with the world's best intermediate turf performers. But as that goal has been achieved, the race seems to be losing much of its international flavor.
Just three European invaders accepted an invite to participate this year, and none of them would be considered top shelf. But as the race occupies an important spot on the year-end Japanese racing calendar and continues to generate tremendous local interest, officials are reluctant to make any changes.
Hiroaki Nishikawa, general manager of the JRA's international department, has seen it all happen. He was around in 1979 when Japan's poor showing in the Washington D.C. International (gr. IT) convinced officials something had to be done to improve the level of Japanese racing. That led to the creation of the Japan Cup two years later.
The thinking was that Japanese horsemen could learn from their American and European counterparts if they could race more against them. As breeding practices also improved, the students eventually became the masters of Japan Cup. Defending champion Gentildonna of Japan is Sunday's co-favorite and the 4-year-old filly could become the first two-time winner of the event.
But it has been an uphill climb. Nishikawa noted that the first Japan Cup winner, the American-raced mare Mairzy Doates trained by John Fulton, had only a grade II victory to her credit, and the first four finishers in the initial race came from overseas. That's the way it usually went for several years.
"That was just too shocking for all Japanese connections," Nishikawa said through his interpreter and assistant, Sachiko Terauchi. "But actually,the invited horses were not that elite, not the top class horses, but the Japanese horses were stil getting beat. What my boss was saying at the time, the main reason to have the Japan Cup was to make a better level of horses here in Japan.
"Way back in the 1980s, our purse money in Japan had reached a substantial value but the quality of our horses in Japan was not that high at that time. Racing was getting popular but needed (a) better level of all Japanese horses or that popularity wouldn't last for long."
"(The Japan Cup) has been like a stimulant to all Japanese connections. They felt like they had to do something about their horses," Nishikawa added. "Looking into the history of the Japan Cup, the first through 10th runnings, overseas horses were more successful than Japanese horses. The next 10 years, it was half and half. But recent runnings have been won by all Japanese, the home runners. It shows clearly how much our sport has grown since that first step."
Along with that success has come the lack of participation from U.S. horses and others. Once able to compete without sending their best runners, horsemen in America realize that is no longer possible. And with the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) running just three weeks earlier, few are willing to send their best on a quick turnaround.
"We try to persuade horses and trainers to come over to Japan," Nishikawa said. "If we had the answer to that question, it would make it easy to solve the problem, but it's all intertwined," he said.
Very strict medication rules including no race day Salix (also known as Lasix) keep some horses away. Shipping thousands of miles and quarantine restrictions are also obstacles.
"Maybe connections in the U.S. are not that interested in international races; they think they can stay home," Nishikawa said. "Many connections are all geared to Breeders' Cup, their main goal. After running in the Breeders' Cup, their season is over.
"The Japan Cup has achieved true international status," Nishikawa continued. "It was one of the first international invitational races. We do want international horses running or it's not international. This is also for our fans. They want to see the international horses compete. They want to see the very top horses. Maybe looking at all the races worldwide, maybe there are 10 to 15 horses all over the world that would qualify for the Japan Cup."
Seiji Yokoe, general manager of the JRA's New York office in charge of recruiting U.S. horses, and Mikki Tsuge, who works with Southern California horsemen and does contracting work with JRA, concurred.
Finding little interest with the connections of the top U.S. turf runners, Yokoe attempted to recruit Bright Thought, a son of Japanese-bred sire Hat Trick who had set a world record for 12 furlongs earlier this year. But after a 10th-place finish in the BC Mile (gr. IT) Nov. 3, the horse's first start in eight months, trainer Jorge Gutierrez declined.
Tsuge, a bloodstock agent who spends about six months a year in Southern California, discussed a similar situation with Vagabond Shoes. Trainer John Sadler was on the bubble with the BC Turf entrant prior to that race, but decided against making the Japan journey after the 6-year-old Irish-bred posted a fifth-place showing.
"Sadler this year made it clear that he did not want to go to Japan just to go," she said in an e-mail. "He would want to participate only if he felt his horse would be a serious contender. (The) situation with Vagabond Shoes was that the BC was first priority. (Japan Cup) was a consideration only if the horse came out of the BC in good form."
Hall of Fame member Drysdale has probably been the most supportive trainer in the U.S. toward the Japan Cup in recent years. But he has had little luck since Sarafan's big effort in 2002.
"It is a fact that trainers with prominent turf records such as Drysdale and Sadler have stated that the Japanese (turf) horses have evolved and are doing so well now, winning all over the world i.e., France, Dubai, etc., that the Japan Cup would be a tough race competing with these proven top runners," Tsuge said.
"Therefore, in order to be competitive, it will require a top notch turf horse. With his numerous experiences running horses in Japan, Drysdale has a clear insight as to what kind of horses it would take to do well in the Japan Cup. I don't see him going to Japan until he is confident that he has a runner fulfilling all the requirements.
"Just in general, it is preceived that the standard of Japanese turf horses has reached the international level," she added. "As a result, I've had trainers ask me why does the JRA still want to invite U.S. horses?"