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Japan Cup provides annual celebration of horse racing

by Adrian Webber

Contributing Writer

When the entrance gates open at Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday, another chapter in the history of one of the world’s most prestigious horse races will also open, and those passing through the gates on Sunday will experience the unique atmosphere that accompanies the running of the Japan Cup.

There may not be much space to move around in the crowd of around 100,000 that attends the event, but to be a part of it is what racing enthusiasts long for, and any temporary feeling of being inconvenienced by the crowds will most probably be cast aside as the excitement starts to mount in the build up to the big race.

The inaugural Japan Cup was run in 1981 and won by the 5-year-old American bred mare Mairzy Doates, ridden by American jockey Cash Asmussen. There was more success the following year for the United States, when 3-year-old Half Iced carried off the honors. Japan’s first victory in the race came in 1984 when Katsuragi Ace was a surprise winner, beating two Triple Crown winners in Japan — Mr. C.B and Symboli Rudolf. Over the years, the spoils have gone to different countries: France won the race in 1987 with Le Glorieux, and New Zealand and Australia supplied the winners in 1989 and 1990 with Horlicks and Better Loosen Up winning for their respective countries. Germany was a winner in 1995 with the 5-year-old Lando.

Among the facts and figures, a few other interesting tales accompany the history of the Japan Cup. Notably, in the two consecutive years that one of England’s greatest trainers, Sir Michael Stoute, sent over Singspiel to win in 1996, and Pilsudski in 1997, both horses won by just a nose and a neck. The stewards, too, have had to determine if any horses were hard done by in the run to the line, and in 2010 they adjudged Buena Vista to have interfered with Rose Kingdom, eventually reversing the placings and awarding the race to the latter. Buena Vista was back in 2011 and got her revenge by winning.

The Japan Cup became an officially rated international Group 1 race in 1984. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) established the race to promote international goodwill in horseracing, thus enabling Japanese horses to compete against runners from overseas. It was also a way of introducing foreign horses to Japan, with the idea that they might eventually stay in Japan for stud duties, and in this way improve the overall quality of bloodstock in the country.

JRA president and CEO, Mr. Masayuki Goto, says of the race: “The Japan Cup was first run in 1981 with the aim of producing world-class racehorses. The race became Japan’s first international Group 1 race, and last year it ranked seventh among the world’s top 100 Group 1 races. I hope this year that many Japanese racegoers, as well as guests from overseas, will go to the racecourse and enjoy this exciting race.”

In more recent years, Japanese horses have dominated the race, and there hasn’t been an overseas winner since Alkaased in 2005. This certainly proves the high level of success that has been achieved in the Japanese bloodstock industry in a relatively short period of time.

It was the turn of Deep Impact to win the Japan Cup in 2006, and it seems a fitting tribute to the horse that he was the first in a long line of winners for Japan since then. He sadly died earlier this year at age of 17 and this year’s Japan Cup has also been named as the Deep Impact Memorial. He was the leading sire in Japan for seven straight years between 2012 and 2018, and produced no less than five Japanese Derby winners. His race prize money of ¥1.4 billion (third in the all-time prize-money list) would seem a handsome payoff for a purchase price of just over ¥73 million at the 2002 Select Sale, and owner Makoto Kaneko would probably have never believed the horse would go on to achieve such great success, both on the racecourse and at stud.

Deep Impact’s jockey, Yutaka Take, has won the Japan Cup four times, so he knows what it takes to come out on top.

“It’s a race that has appeal to horsemen around the world. In the race itself, you must have a horse with good reactions,” the jockey said. “When the runners are parading in the paddock, the atmosphere seems different in Japan, and it’s more important to keep the horse concentrated.

“My special memories of the race are winning my first Japan Cup on Special Week in 1999, and, of course, with Deep Impact. Unfortunately, as he was unable to win the Arc de Triomphe, his Japan Cup win sticks in the memory even more for all those associated with the horse.”

Another rider who won the Japan Cup just last year for the second time is Frenchman Christophe Lemaire. He literally flew home on superstar 3-year-old filly Almond Eye, just the second 3-year-old filly to win the race, in a record time of 2 minutes 20.6 seconds, shaving 1.5 seconds off the previous record.

Currently the leading jockey in Japan, he commented on the special quality of the race and his achievement last year.

“The Japan Cup is the most international race in Japan, and for trainers, jockeys and connections, everyone around the world is aware of its international status,” said Lemaire. “You need a horse with stamina to see out the 1½ miles, and one that likes fast ground. It’s a very high-class horse that can act at Tokyo and tackle the final home stretch.

“I was so lucky last year to be on an amazing horse. I knew coming to the top of the stretch I was going to win. She has such a long stride and is just a special horse. I’m really only the passenger.”

This year’s Japan Cup will be the 39th, and although there will be no runners from overseas, the race will have its usual excitement and color. Some of the world’s greatest jockeys are in town, having been booked to take rides in the big race.

Two previous Derby winners should be in the lineup, namely Makahiki (2016) and Wagnerian (2018), and the 2017 Japan Cup winner, Cheval Grand, owned by former baseball great Kazuhiro Sasaki, will be back again for another tilt at the race. Consistent Group 1 performer Rey de Oro is also expected to play a part.

The race will be the 11th on the card, going off at 3:40 in the afternoon, and should you be free on the day, you might want to get out to the track at Fuchu and savor the special atmosphere that is the Japan Cup.