The Group 1 Japan Cup enters its fifth decade this year, and the autumn showpiece will once again be run Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, the home of many of Japan’s top-flight horse races, including the Oaks and the Japanese Derby, also run over 2,400 meters.
Once again, regrettably, the on-track attendance figure (normally somewhere in the region of 100,000) will be drastically cut to around 10,000, the number given at the current time of writing. Only pre-reserved online tickets will allow racegoers to witness the action live on the day, and for those who haven’t already done this, showing up without a reserved ticket on race day will not gain access to the course.
Established back in 1981 (the first Japan Cup winner was the American mare Mairzy Doates), the race was, to a large extent, set up to allow Japanese horses to compete with their overseas counterparts, and with a view to getting some of the foreign horses to stay in the country after they retired to improve the quality of Japanese bloodstock. Some might argue the scales have been tipped way too far in Japan’s favor now, with the home team having won 26 times in the 40-year history of the Japan Cup. The last foreign winner of the race was Alkaased in 2005. Just a year later, Ouija Board became the last overseas runner to gain a top three finish by placing third. This year there have been 11 nominations from other countries for their horses to run in the race, and it looks like there could be three runners from overseas in the final line-up, namely Japan and Broome from Ireland, and Grand Glory from France. They will certainly have their work cut out in taking on the best Japanese horses, but that is what the race is all about.
A glance through the history of the Japan Cup is like a roll call of some of the greatest names, be they equine or human, ever to be associated with the world of horse racing. Here are just a few of the highlights: American great and Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rode Golden Pheasant to victory in 1991. One of England’s best-ever trainers, Sir Michael Stoute, won the race two years in a row with Singspiel in 1996 and Pilsudski in 1997, and Japan’s very own legend, Yutaka Take, who recently rode his 4,300th JRA winner, won the Japan Cup on Special Week in 1999, and aboard the great Deep Impact in 2006, as well as most recently on Kitasan Black in 2016.
The leading jockey in Japan for the past four years (as well as leading the jockeys’ table so far this year), Christophe Lemaire has won the Japan Cup three times, and I recently asked him what he thought made the race special.
“It’s one of the world’s outstanding races, up there with the Arc de Triomphe, the Breeders’ Cup and the Hong Kong International Races. Open to foreign horses, it’s a great way for Japanese runners to compete on a world level. You need a horse with stamina, but also one with speed, as races in Japan tend to be run at a fast pace. It’s also important to get a good position going into the first corner of the race,” he said.
The charismatic Frenchman was associated with the class mare Almond Eye in recent years, of whom the quote “Some are born great” readily comes to mind. When asked about what made the two-time Japan Cup winner such a force in the race, the rider said: “She just had everything: ability, speed and stamina. She invariably broke well from the gate and she had such a big stride. It was also the incredible acceleration that she had at the end of a race that really gave her the edge over other horses.”
Another man who also knows a bit about the Japan Cup is the head of Paca Paca Farm and Darley Japan, Harry Sweeney. His experience in the industry in Japan counts for a lot, and he gave me his thoughts on the race.
“It’s a fantastic international race at the highest level, and it’s a true test of a horse to be able to race over a mile and a half on good ground. I particularly like the time of year when the race is run, when the proven 3-year-olds can take on the older competition in the race. As a breeder, looking at a horse that can win the Japan Cup would be a real sign of a horse’s ability, and would certainly give more emphasis to its prospects at stud,” said the head of the breeding farms in Hokkaido.
The maximum field size for this Sunday’s big race is 18, and it remains to be seen how many runners will head to the starting line on the day. Four-year-olds and up carry 57 kilograms, with a 2-kg allowance for 3-year-olds as well as fillies and mares.
For the home team, a likely 3-year-old contender is this year’s Derby winner Shahryar, who just got up to win it by a couple of pixels. After that run, his jockey Yuichi Fukunaga said, “We were in a tight spot, but he finally produced a terrific late charge to just win.” On the receiving end of that knockout blow was Efforia, a colt that recently won the Autumn Tenno Sho (Emperor’s Cup), and probably won’t run on Sunday, given the quick turnaround since that race. Not to be forgotten is last year’s Triple Crown winner Contrail, who’s yet to win as a 4-year-old but could be considered a little unlucky in just his two races this year, where he has finished third and second, with one of those races being run on heavy ground.
The 41st Japan Cup is scheduled to start at 3:40 p.m. on Sunday, and the scene looks set for another fascinating race in the history of one of Japan’s biggest horse races.
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