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Japanese Derby stands out as one of racing's big events

by Adrian Webber

Contributing Writer

It’s the 86th running of the Japanese Derby (or the Tokyo Yushun as it’s known in Japan) this coming Sunday, and the race will be run at Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, just a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of the city center, although that hustle and bustle will be shifting to Fuchu, and taking on a different look.

The Derby is one of the greatest races on the Japanese horse racing calendar, and attendance figures on the day invariably top the 100,000 mark. It represents the second leg of the Triple Crown, after the Satsuki-sho (or Japanese 2,000 Guineas) earlier in the spring, and the final race of the series in autumn, the Kikka-sho (or Japanese St. Leger).

The race starts in front of the packed grandstands, and after taking in just over a circuit of the turf track (the race distance is 2,400 meters), the winning colt on Sunday will flash past the winning post to claim a Derby victory, in probably a little over 2 minutes and 20 seconds, and will become the proud recipient of all the glory that goes with a Classic win, as well as the ¥200 million winner’s check. The post-race ceremony for the winner and connections can really drive home the meaning of what it is to win the race.

The first Japanese Derby was run at Meguro Racecourse in Tokyo in 1932 and was won by a horse called Wakataka. It wasn’t long after that construction started on the racecourse at Fuchu, and since the early ’30s, this has been the spiritual home of Japanese horse racing, hosting other big races like the Emperor’s Cup (Tenno-sho), the Japan Cup and the Yasuda Kinen, as well as the Derby. Japan is lucky enough to enjoy a buoyant horse racing industry, with breeding farms in Hokkaido playing a big part, and in recent years, attendances at racecourses have been increasing, together with sales turnover. Japan-bred horses are known to the world, and just in the past few months, the filly Almond Eye scored a big win in Dubai, and Master Fencer ran a strong race in the Kentucky Derby to finish sixth.

Domestically though, the Derby is one of the big ones, and it’s just about everybody’s dream to win it. A Derby winner would always be considered something special, particularly when it comes to breeding after the horse’s racing career is over. A case in point is the great Deep Impact, who thrilled racing fans during his reign at the top, winning 12 out of a total of 14 races while gracing the racecourse, including the Derby in 2005. He invariably weighed less than 450 kg, but to see his turn of foot and him picking off his rivals down the home straight in a race has to be one of the greatest sights in modern Japanese racing. Fittingly, he has been the leading sire in Japan for the last seven years.

This year attention will focus on a horse called Saturnalia, who goes into the Derby unbeaten, and statistically faces a hard task, with only three other Derby winners fitting that profile. He won three races as a 2-year-old, including the Group 1 Hopeful Stakes. He is a half-brother to 2014 Japan Cup winner Epiphaneia, and he won this year’s Satsuki-sho. Many see him as a potential Triple Crown winner, of which there have just been seven in Japanese racing history.

Top Australian jockey Damian Lane is currently riding in Japan on a short-term license, and will get the leg up on Saturnalia in the Derby.

“I’m loving the races here in Japan. As for Saturnalia, he seems like a nice colt and I hope he can win the Derby. What I like about him is that he keeps winning,” the jockey said recently, with a bit of a smile on his face.

The Japan Racing Association oversees most of the racing in Japan, and it too recognizes the importance of the race.

President and CEO Masayuki Goto said: “Derby day all over the world is the ‘biggest festival in horse racing.’ Here in Japan, with the increasing number of overseas guests and non-Japanese residents, the JRA has been offering more customer support. This year’s Derby will have 18 elite horses in the lineup and I’m sure it’ll be a thrilling race.”

Another man who knows a bit about the Derby is racing commentator Murray Johnson, and it’s his call of the race in English that will be broadcast to countries around the world on Sunday.

Asked what the race meant to him, he said, “The Derby, along with the Japan Cup, creates the most nervous energy I have ever had as a race caller. This year’s Derby should be a ripper, with Saturnalia, Velox and Danon Kingly looking like the standouts. The big question is which will run the strongest 2,400 meters. Love it!”

General admission to Tokyo Racecourse is a mere ¥200, and although you won’t be able to get a reserved seat on Derby day, just to be among the crowd that’s fired up for the race, the atmosphere is certainly something to be experienced. The minimum stake bet is ¥100, so it doesn’t cost a king’s ransom to enjoy the sport of kings in Japan. Once inside the entrance gates of the racecourse, there’s something for everyone to enjoy: there’s the JRA Racing Museum to sharpen your knowledge of racing, live music stages at different locations, a children’s playground located on the infield, and numerous food and beverage outlets. There’s even a rose garden to take time out from the crowds and think about what your race selections might be, or where it all went wrong.

On big race days like the Derby, it’s best to take the train to the course, and Fuchukeiba-Seimonmae Station on the Keio Line, or Fuchu-Honmachi Station on the Nanbu Line and Musashino Line, are the nearest stations.

Enjoy your Derby Day!

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