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As the month of May leads us toward the hotter days just around the corner, it’s once again time for one of Japan’s great horse races, the Japanese Derby, or Tokyo Yushun, as it is sometimes called here in Japan. This Sunday sees the race run at its traditional home, Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, just a short journey west from the center of the capital.

Despite the difficult conditions from the pandemic continuing well into 2021, horse racing in Japan has been largely able to weather the storm, and with strict protocols in place, it has essentially meant the industry remains on a steady path to when normality returns, and racing can once again take on its familiar appearance for all the people involved, whatever their role. Be it the lunchbox seller at the track, or the small-time punter chasing a rainbow, racing is sure to find the sum of its parts sometime again in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, this year’s Japanese Derby will have to take place with limited spectators, and the Japan Racing Association’s top official, President and CEO Masayuki Goto, had the following to say about this year’s race: “To ensure the health and safety of customers and staff, entry to the racecourse will be limited to those who have purchased reserved seats online in advance. The 88th derby will be held on May 30 and will determine the best 3-year-old from approximately 7,200 horses born in 2018.” He went on to add, “It’s my sincere wish that things settle down soon and that everyone can enjoy watching racing again on-site.”

The first Japanese Derby was run in 1932, and was won by a horse named Wakataka at the now defunct Meguro Racecourse in Tokyo, although its roots go back further to when foreign people began to stage Western-style horse races in Yokohama in 1862, thereby leading to the formation of the Yokohama Race Club.

Since that time, racing in Japan has gradually evolved to take on its current format, a look that closely resembles that of Western countries, in particular when it comes to the Japanese Triple Crown series for 3-year-olds, with the derby being a key component of this. There have been just eight Triple Crown winners in Japanese horse racing history, the first being St. Lite in 1941, and the most recent, Contrail just last year, breaking an eight-year drought.

The first leg of the Triple Crown is known as the Satsuki-sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) which is run in April. This race has seen 24 winners go on to capture the derby as well. The winner of the Satsuki-sho invariably ignites the flame of hope that another exciting colt (very rarely a filly) is just two wins away from receiving one of racing’s biggest accolades. Just by winning this race, the enormous expectation accompanying the victory would almost seem enough to make the horse want to hide in its stable and keep a low profile, until the hubbub and hype have died down considerably.

Second-favorite Efforia eases to victory during the Satsuki-sho at Nakayama Racecourse in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, on April 18. | KYODO
Second-favorite Efforia eases to victory during the Satsuki-sho at Nakayama Racecourse in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, on April 18. | KYODO

This year the horse that goes into the derby carrying so many people’s hopes is Efforia, a 3-year-old colt by 2014 Japan Cup winner Epiphaneia, out of a Heart’s Cry mare, giving him all the right bloodlines. He runs in the U Carrot Farm racing colors and was bred at Northern Farm. Another dose of pressure also rests on his young jockey, Takeshi Yokoyama, who was born just three days before Christmas in 1998, and only rode his first winner in April 2017. After his win this year in the Satsuki-sho by three lengths, he could relax a bit.

“It’s such a great feeling, and I’ve been fortunate to ride the horse since his debut, but being unbeaten and heavily backed, I knew the pressure would be great,” said the jockey after his first Group 1 victory.

Yuichi Fukunaga makes the V sign after riding Contrail to victory at the Japanese Derby. | KYODO
Yuichi Fukunaga makes the V sign after riding Contrail to victory at the Japanese Derby. | KYODO

Efforia has had a short break at the farm, but returned to his stable at the Miho Training Center just recently. Trainer Yuichi Shikato said, “He’s returned to the stable with no problems, and he did some fast work while he was at the farm, so he’s quite full of himself.”

Adding spice to this year’s Derby is the rare entry of a filly to take on the colts, and it’s been seven years since a filly last took part in the race. Satono Reinas, a horse that cost ¥108 million and is a daughter of the great Deep Impact, will try to become the first filly to win the race since Vodka in 2007, who herself broke a 64-year drought for fillies winning the derby. Satono Reinas is trained by Sakae Kunieda, and her jockey is Christophe Lemaire, the leading jockey in Japan. The same trainer/jockey combination was responsible for the hugely successful mare Almond Eye, who in the last few years managed to win a total of nine Group 1 races, both in Japan and abroad. Of Satono Reinas, Kunieda recently said: “She’s filling out nicely. She’s always been quite a relaxed horse, and I feel good about her.” Of course, these are just two of the runners from the maximum of 18 permitted to run in the race, and it’s easy to get carried away by the more popular horses. Racing is never that simple, and the 2019 derby winner, Roger Barows, proved that just because a horse is not in the spotlight, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a chance.

He duly obliged by winning at odds of 92-1, and set a record time as well. Sunday’s race will be run over 2,400 meters on the turf track at Tokyo Racecourse, with the start in front of the stands, and take in just over a circuit of the track. Unfortunately, the grandstands will be sparsely populated once more (196,000 people attended in 1990), but the most important thing is to stay safe and enjoy the race in the best way possible during these difficult times.

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