Japan is the future of horse racing. That’s the view of many knowledgable racing people and it’s undeniable that the game has been flourishing for the past few decades in the Land of the Rising Sun – unlike everywhere else in the world.
Huge local and international interest generated by the recent Japan Cup, the country’s principal race, and a powerful contingent heading for Hong Kong’s International Races at the weekend, have swung the spotlight east.
Britain’s influential Racing Post website has sent an investigative reporter to Japan to find out what makes its racing tick. His article this week was a surprised revelation that horse grooms get a whopping 5% of race stake earnings.
An international thoroughbred analyst has even suggested that Japan’s breeding industry is about to eclipse all others in the world. Sacrilege! You could hear the scoffing in England, Ireland, the US and Australia from half a globe away.
However, it is a fact that the popularity of Japanese racing has not fallen off to anything like the degree it has in more prestigious jurisdictions. And horses bred and trained in Japan have become frequent winners of the world’s biggest international races over the past 10 years.
This week, when Japanese superstar Almond Eye was withdrawn from Sunday’s 2000m Grade 1 Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin, it made major headlines in the Chinese enclave – a place that you’d guess has weightier things on its mind than the gee-gees.
Racing-crazy Hong Kong is consoling itself with the good tidings that the rest of Japan’s raiding party will line up at the big meeting.
Also present will be the world’s most famous jockey, Frankie Dettori, whose recent experience of Japanese racing provides an insight into just what a well-run ship it is.
Once final declarations for a race have been made, 24 hours before the off-time, all engaged jockeys are put into “lockdown” until the race is run. They must report to a jockey boarding house for “supervised custody” to ensure they are not in any way influenced by outside forces. They are cut off from the world – and particularly the social media world.
Dettori landed in hot water when someone noticed his Instagram account had a picture posted sometime after the strict “curfew”. It turned out he had sent pictures of himself to his secretary in the UK – before being locked away – and she had later uploaded them to his account.
Japanese stipes hurrumphed, but let Frankie off.
(Imagine placing Piere Strydom and Anton Marcus in supervised custody at the Vaal before a Tuesday meeting!)
Controls to ensure Japan’s racing is free of chicanery are staggeringly strict to outsiders – and seldom reported on. The measures do appear to work in keeping punters confident their money is going into an honest endeavour.
National annual betting turnover is more than $35 billion, triple the amount wagered on American races.
Rules include not allowing private vets, only Japan Racing Authority employees. Also, trainers must provide detailed instructions about feeding, medication and equipment to racecourse horse minders who attend to all the preliminary preparations before races.
Trainers and jockeys must pass tough schooling regimes and exams before they get licences. Most trainers do not crack the nod until they are in their 40s.
Brazilian Joao Moreira, one of the world’s most successful riders, famously plugged his written exam in Japan last year and had to scuttle back to Hong Kong, where things are not quite as rigorous – though they are still far tougher there than in most other racing places.
Japan’s Western-style racing dates back more than 100 years, but it only started making waves globally in the 1990s. US-bred horses like El Condor Pasa and Agnes World popped surprises with Grade 1 wins in France – with the latter also raising eyebrows in the UK with victory in the famous July Cup.
But it was a smash-and-grab first and second by Delta Blues and Pop Rock in the 2006 Melbourne Cup that changed the way the racing world looked at raiders from Japan.
Victoire Pisa’s Dubai World Cup triumph in 2011 and Just A Way’s 2014 Dubai Duty Free demolition firmly stamped the country as a major force.
Without Almond Eye, Japan’s challenge in Hong Kong is not as strong as it has been in recent years, but one dares not discount it.
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