Sunday promises to be a day of memories, some of them new, but most of them acquired from the past several decades of Japanese racing, and sure to be brought back to life by the sight of old familiar faces, both human and equine.
Veteran jockeys who long ago hung up their silks will meet once again at Tokyo Racecourse to vie for a win of the second running of the Jockey Masters, a 1,600-meter event over turf. The race will be run after the day’s regular card, with post time set for 4:40 p.m.
Eight riders will take part in this year’s race. Five of them, two of them non-Japanese, were winners in the Japan Cup, each of them, top-notch in his day.
Drawing the inside post in the eight-strong race is Japan’s Mikio Matsunaga, followed by New Zealand’s Lance O’Sullivan, Katsumi Minai, Hiroshi Kawachi, Takemi Sasaki, Yukio Okabe, South African Michael Roberts and, on the outside, Takayuki Yasuda.
Okabe, whose most memorable rides undoubtedly include the seven Group I wins aboard Japanese Triple Crown winner Symboli Rudolf, is surely one of Japan’s most respected jockeys. Known for his sharp riding and sharper comments, Okabe was a name to be reckoned with, both by his fellow riders and by the bettor looking for a payout. Okabe ended his career in 2005 with 2,943 wins in 18,646 races.
Aomori native Takemi Sasaki, known as “The Iron Man,” is the winningest of the participants. A hero on the local circuit based at Kanagawa’s Kawasaki Racecourse, Sasaki’s career spanned 42 years and boasted 7,151 wins in a near unimaginable 39,060 rides.
In keeping with his nickname, Sasaki, who retired in 2001 and just celebrated his 67th birthday, says he has no worries about his ride Sunday.
And coming from abroad, for the first time in the new series, are two champion riders who left their mark in Japan. Roberts, who rode his way to the top levels of British racing, is especially remembered by Japanese fans for his professional attitude and ready smile in numerous three-month stints in this country, as well as for his Japan Cup win on Landau in 1995.
O’Sullivan made Japanese racing history with his thrilling winning ride aboard the filly Horlicks in the 1989 Japan Cup and established a race record that only recently fell. Horlicks and Japanese legend Oguri Cap battled it out in the stretch in a hair-raising run that still brings goose bumps to any racing fan who watches it.
Though there will be no wagering on the Jockey Masters, those who want to have a go at picking the winner should know that only three of the horses running have ever won a JRA race, those paired with Roberts, Sasaki and O’Sullivan. Roberts’ horse, a 7-year-old gelding is the eldest of the lineup, with Okabe and Yasuda on 3-year-old colts, Minai on a 3-year-old filly.
Each jockey will wear the colors of his Japan Cup winner, or in the case of Matsunaga and Yasuda, the 2005 fall Emperor’s Cup champion Heavenly Romance and 1991 Nippon Derby winner Tokai Teio, respectively. Sasaki will wear the silks of Tetsu no Kachidoki, 1987 winner of the Tokyo Daishoten.
Also, on Sunday, another of great fame will make an appearance at Tokyo Racecourse, the famous gray Oguri Cap, the son of Dancing Key, out of White Narubi.
Oguri Cap became a name that transcended the usual circles of racing fans and found its way into the hearts and onto the lips of the Japanese layman, many of whom, in much the same way they did with national hero Haiseiko in the early ’70s, identified with the never-say-die attitude they saw embodied in Oguri Cap and his gutsy track performances.
Oguri Cap, Japan’s Horse of the Year in 1990, leapt from fame on the local circuit at Kasamatsu Racecourse in Gifu Prefecture with 10 wins in 12 starts to the national level of racing, where he went on to capture 12 wins in 20 starts, including his winning runs in the 1988 Arima Memorial, the ’89 Mile Championship, ’90 Yasuda Memorial and his final run under Yutaka Take in the 1990 Arima Kinen.
“The Gray Monster,” as Oguri Cap was known, is also remembered for his rivalry with another famous gray, “White Lightning,” Tamamo Cross, whom Oguri lost to in the fall Emperor’s Cup in 1988. Oguri saw that loss revenged just two months later in the Arima Memorial.
Second-place finishes, in the fall Emperor’s Cup in 1988, ’89, the 1989 Japan Cup, and most of all, his battle back to health after a nine-month layoff, were all part of the Oguri legend.
After a fifth-place finish in the 1989 Arima Kinen, the word was out that Oguri was washed up, but he made a comeback in his final year and capped it with a decisive win in the yearend Arima Kinen. The congratulatory chant of “O-gu-ri, O-gu-ri!!” following that race brought tears to the eyes of many.
The 23-year-old Oguri Cap arrived safely Thursday at Tokyo Racecourse early in the morning following a near 24-hour trailer ride from Shizunai, Hokkaido, home to the champion since that memorable day at Nakayama Racecourse 18 years ago.
Oguri Cap will appear in the Tokyo paddock (pre-parade ring) during the lunchtime break from 11:35 a.m. to 11:50 a.m. on Sunday.
Afterward, one can visit with the champion at the Rose Garden Horse Ring from 2 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. The Rose Garden is located near the Higashi Fuchu (east) entrance to Tokyo Racecourse behind the riding club stables.
Come out and meet the “Gray Monster,” now a slow-moving, snowy-white elderly gentleman, but still held most dear by thousands.
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