Churchill Downs Inc. officials say they'll try again next year to get a Japanese horse in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (G1)—with hopes to add to the international draw and revenues of its signature event.
Meanwhile, this year's Belmont Stakes (G1) is poised to be the first United States Triple Crown race to be simulcast into Japan.
Churchill Downs Inc. chief executive officer Bill Carstanjen told investors and others on a conference call April 27 that having a starter from the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby that was created for the 2017 Derby would have been a bonus financially.
"We did not build in any economic expectations for this into our plan, and it would have been all additional upside," he said.
The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, created in partnership with the Japan Racing Association, guaranteed a spot in the Derby field for one of three top points-earning horses in two one-mile Japanese races. None of those three elected to come to Louisville, including Japanese points leader Epicharis, who finished second to Kentucky Derby starter Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby Presented by The Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2).
On May 3, officials from the New York Racing Association said that the connections of Epicharis, who is owned by syndicate U Carrot Farm, plan to have their horse make his North American debut in the Belmont Stakes, where the horse also will be eligible for a $1 million bonus that NYRA is offering to a Japan-based Belmont winner this season.
Trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said the Derby did not time up as well for Epicharis as the Belmont.
"When he arrived in Japan from Dubai, he was a bit tired from traveling and we wanted to give him enough time, thus we had to pass on the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1), though he was awarded (a spot in the) starting gate in the Kentucky Derby as the winner of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby," Hagiwara said. "Now he is completely recovered and he is doing well, so we decided to try the Belmont Stakes. He is bred to stay and, the way he races, I believe 1 1/2 miles at Belmont suits him."
While the Japan Road to the Derby did not deliver a horse this year, the effort to attract a Japanese horse likely will expand next year, said company president and chief operating officer Bill Mudd.
"I think the prospects (of getting a Japanese horse in the Derby) are very good for future years and we'll probably expand the number of races this (coming) year," Mudd said.
The benefits would be seen in "all the same ways we monetize the Derby today largely," Mudd said on the call. "This gives us another market to get into."
First, "it would be more excitement in wagering on our product," he said.
Mudd noted that Japan's betting market was closed to foreign racing until last year and that the first foreign racing open for wagering under that law, the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe (G1), saw $40 million in wagering from Japan—more than the race handled in France.
Also, NBC Sports, which has the broadcast rights for the Derby, would have "more opportunity ... to distribute their signal, which will hopefully turn into economics at some point down the road. ... Obviously, there are a lot of Japanese sponsors that are potentially lucrative to us as part of the Derby. And then we're also building 36 new suites ... and we've had a number of people inquire about adding some hospitality to what we give on the Japanese side."
Epicharis' presence in the Belmont Stakes is widely expected to open the race for pari-mutuel wagering in Japan, making it the first U.S. Triple Crown race available for simulcast in the country and, following the 2016 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T), only the second American stakes race ever offered for wagering in Japan.
Through an agreement reached between NYRA and the JRA—pending final regulatory approval by the New York State Gaming Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of Japan—Japanese wagering on the Belmont Stakes will be conducted through a separate, non-comingled pool.
To facilitate wagering on the Belmont, NYRA will provide a live simulcast in Japan, accessible through Green Channel, JRA's official racing cable network channel, as well as replays of the race at the JRA's on- and off-course facilities, JRA racing programs on Fuji Television Network and Television Tokyo, and on the JRA's website, to be geo-filtered within Japan. Wagering will be available via JRA's internet betting platform, PAT.
"I'm very pleased to have a runner from Japan in the Belmont Stakes two years in a row," said Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations. "This is something we've been working on here at NYRA for the last couple of years and we've had a good response from Japanese horsemen and their fans. I was fortunate to be working at Hollywood Park when (U Carrot Farm's) Cesario won the (2005) American Oaks (G1T), and we're excited that U Carrot Farm will try for another grade 1 win in America in the 2017 Belmont Stakes."
The connections are looking forward to starting in the Belmont. A year ago Japan-trained Lani ran third in the New York classic.
"Since we met Mr. Martin Panza at Tokyo in February, he has been very helpful and we knew NYRA was dedicated to have him running," Hagiwara said. "It gave us much confidence to try for the 'Test of the Champion.' We really appreciate him. Epicharis is arriving in New York on June 1, via Anchorage and Chicago, and I will be in New York on June 2. I am very excited and am looking forward to the challenge."
Churchill experienced some of the possibility last year, when Lani ran in the Derby, which brought "a lot of excitement from the Japanese last year around our event," Mudd said.