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It’s once again the time of year for the Japan Cup, one of the most prestigious horse races in the world, and certainly the race on the horse racing calendar here in Japan that jumps off the page as one of the year’s biggest events.

While it’s been a very tough time for the industry worldwide, Japan has managed to stage most of its racing since the beginning of the year (albeit with no spectators for the most part), and thanks to online sales, turnover hasn’t fallen drastically to levels where racing would have to reinvent itself in a totally different way. JRA President and CEO Masayuki Goto has been fully aware of the situation.

“Since February, racing has had to be held without spectators, but thanks to the understanding and cooperation of racing fans and the people involved in the thoroughbred industry, we have been able to keep the races,” the top official said recently. “This year marks the 40th running of the Japan Cup. The overseas runner Way To Paris is taking part in the race, and we wish him all the best against some of our top horses here in Japan. I sincerely hope everyone can enjoy this year’s Japan Cup, in spite of it being a difficult year,” he added.

It is indeed the 40th running of the race, it having first been run in 1981. It will be held at its usual venue, Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu. The racecourse was built in 1933, and is home to many Group 1 races in Japan, including the Oaks and the Derby. A usual Japan Cup day would see 100,000 or more in attendance (the record was set in 1995 when just over 187,000 racegoers saw Lando win), but sadly this year the number is expected to be close to 5,000, due to the strict limit on admission to racetracks at the current time. Reserved seats can only be applied for online through the JRA website (Japanese version only), and recipients of tickets will be determined by lottery. It’s just going to be one of those years where fans are going to have to make alternative plans to see the race.

Japanese-trained horses certainly have the upper hand in the race, and the home team now boasts 25 victories to the 14 overseas winners, with Japan providing the last 14 winners of the race, proving that it’s becoming a bit of an unstoppable juggernaut. The last foreign-trained winner was Alkaased in 2005, and he was the race record time-holder until Japan’s extraordinary Almond Eye blew that away in 2018 when she bolted to a winning time of 2 minutes and 20.6 seconds over 2,400 meters on the Tokyo turf track.

The race this year will mostly feature Japanese horses, and despite the best efforts to get a horse called Japan to come over from Ireland, he will not be here for the race. There is one entry from overseas, the aforementioned 7-year-old Way To Paris. There were no runners from other countries last year (for the first time in the history of the race), but there’s enough international flavor about Way To Paris to go just a little way in connecting other nations to the race this year, when a number of constraints have made it very difficult to get other horses here from overseas for the race. Way To Paris is a British-bred horse sired by Champs Elysees, and is trained by Italian-born Andrea Marcialis, who has been training at Chantilly in France for the last couple of years or so. The striking grey horse won the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud over one and a half miles on good to soft ground back in June. He might just find the firm track at Tokyo — or even a rain affected one — to his liking. The odds will be stacked against him though, with only one 7-year-old winner in race history, that being Jupiter Island in 1986.

Meanwhile on the home front, battle lines are being drawn up and some heavy artillery is being put into place. The two 3-year-old horses that claimed all the Classic races this year, namely the filly Daring Tact and the colt Contrail, are being readied for the race, and the amazing thing about them is that they have yet to be beaten in their careers so far. Contrail had a tough race when he won the Kikuka Sho (or Japanese St. Leger) over 3,000 meters at Kyoto in October, but his trainer, Yoshito Yahagi, believes he’s fully recovered and can take on the Japan Cup.

“When I went to see him at the farm recently, I had no concerns about him. He’s been quick to come back to himself, and he’s completely recovered from his exertions last time. Having consulted with his owners, we’ve come to the conclusion that it would be a great thing for racing if he were to take on Daring Tact in this year’s Japan Cup,” said the trainer recently.

Adding a bit more spice to things is the recent announcement that one of Japan’s very best horses over the last few years will also take on the race. Enter Almond Eye, winner of no less than eight Group 1 turf races, including the 2018 Japan Cup, and it will be her final race before she signs off on her career. Charismatic Frenchman Christophe Lemaire is expected to ride her once again, and it really would be something if Almond Eye could end her career with another win of the Japan Cup. On top of these big names, there will be a number of other seasoned campaigners making sure it’s not just a three horse race. So despite the circumstances that mean the stands at Fuchu will be virtually empty, the Japan Cup will still have its licence to thrill, and I’m sure watching the race however possible away from the racecourse will still provide the usual excitement.

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