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The countdown is on for one of the most prestigious horse races in Japan, as the clock ticks down to 3:40 p.m. on Sunday, when the Japanese Derby will be run. This year, with things as they are in the world of sport, the race will be held behind closed doors, taking away its colorful atmosphere and vibrancy. But nevertheless, the horse-racing fraternity will breathe a sigh of relief about the fact the race can go ahead, albeit not quite in its usual guise.

Racing jurisdictions around the world have dealt with the coronavirus problem in different ways, and the Japan Racing Association has made its own model, restricting the movement of horses and personnel, as well as closing off-track betting facilities and only permitting wagering online or by phone. Sales turnover remains (in most cases) at a fairly healthy 80 to 85 percent of previous figures, and it has enabled the wheels of the industry to keep turning. It’s a fact that has not been lost on JRA President and CEO, Masayuki Goto.

“While many other countries have been suspending racing, JRA has been fortunate enough to continue holding closed-door race meetings, and the Japanese Derby will be held under those conditions,’’ said Goto. “I’m sure it’ll be a race full of thrills, so please enjoy it under the stay-home request on Sunday. We sincerely hope things everywhere return to normal soon, and people can enjoy watching racing on site.”

The Japanese Derby, or Tokyo Yushun as it is sometimes known, was first run in 1932 at the Meguro Racecourse in Tokyo.

All that remains now of the former racetrack is a small stone memorial and horse statue to the west of Meguro station, and — just to remind us of the first derby — a race known as the Meguro Kinen, a valuable handicap that is now run on the same day as the derby.

The current racecourse at Fuchu dates back to 1934, when the derby was first held there. Japan recorded its first-ever Japanese Triple Crown (Satsuki Sho, Japanese Derby and Kikuka Sho) winner in 1941, when a horse named St. Lite won the derby and then went on to win the final leg of the three-race series.

By 1943, the winner’s prize money had reached ¥ 10,000, a princely sum back in the day, and it went to a filly called Kurifuji, who became the second filly to win the race. The derby wasn’t run in 1945 or ’46, and for a while it felt like this could have been another blank year, but the race goes ahead.

In 1964, Shinzan won the derby, and followed that up with a win in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) to become the second Triple Crown winner, and 1972 was the year that Long Ace won, with jockey Kunihiko Take in the saddle.

The latter was the inspiration for Take’s son, Yutaka, to become a jockey, and his impressive career in racing still continues today and shows no sign of slowing down. Yutaka Take has won the derby no fewer than five times.

The rest of the last century produced three more Triple Crown winners, namely Mr. CB (1983), Symboli Rudolf (1984) and Narita Brian (1994). Since then, derby winners King Kamehameha (2004) and Deep Impact (2005), not only won the derby, but went on to have such prolific success as stallions, producing more derby winners between them and heading Japan’s leading sires list from 2010 until 2019: King Kamehameha in 2010 and 2011, and Deep Impact the remaining eight years. Sadly both horses passed away within weeks of each other in 2019.

So how is the derby of 2020 shaping up?

To put it in rather cliched terms, it looks like a battle between the two “big guns,” Salios and Contrail.

Both horses won Group 1 races during their 2-year-old careers: Salios the Asahi-hai Futurity Stakes last December, and Contrail the Hopeful Stakes, also run at the end of last year.

They finally met in the same race this April, the Satsuki-sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas), when Contrail beat his rival by half a length, with the next horse passing the winning post 3½ lengths behind. The rematch has something of a Joe Frazier versus Muhammad Ali look about it, as both horses put their reputation on the line in the derby.

Salios hails from the stable of trainer Noriyuki Hori, a man whose professionalism leaves nothing in doubt, and who has already won the derby with Duramente in 2015. He’s hoping he can turn that half-length difference around this time with the horse he holds in high regard.

“He’s one of the best horses I’ve ever trained, particularly when it comes to his mental attitude,’’ Hori said. “He has a good temperament and is easy to control, and has good racing sense as well. However a race plans out, he’s able to adapt to the situation, and the jockey can understand what the horse is all about, Things didn’t quite work out in his favor in the Satsuki Sho, so I’m hoping things can go right for him this time.”

Meanwhile in the Contrail camp, expectations are equally high that the unbeaten son of Deep Impact can give trainer Yoshito Yahagi his second derby win, after capturing the race in 2012 with Deep Brillante.

Yahagi and Hori are both riding high in the trainers’ rankings this year, so each will be hoping their skills will once again produce a derby winner.

Contrail’s jockey, Yuichi Fukunaga, won the derby for the first time as recently as 2018 aboard Wagnerian, and has ridden over 2,300 winners since his debut in 1996. He’s upbeat about riding Contrail this time too.

“In his last race, things worked out a bit different to what I’d imagined, and I had one or two anxious moments, but he’s getting stronger, and he showed what a great turn of foot he has,’’ Fukunaga said. “It was definitely his best run so far, and I’m looking ahead to what he might do over the extended derby distance.”

So will it be Salios or Contrail that passes the post first on Sunday?

Wiser souls among us would surely be looking at the chances of the other 16 runners. A famous maxim in racing is “to expect the unexpected,” and that was borne out in last year’s derby, when Roger Barows took everyone by surprise, winning at odds of 93-1.

Whatever happens, make sure you don’t head off to the track at Fuchu this time, but try to recreate the atmosphere of 100,000 people or so, by watching the race at home. You might just want to mention that to the neighbors.

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