Japanese Horse Racing Gallops Toward Global Respect

Society Culture

Horse racing is a flourishing sport in Europe, most notably Britain—its country of origin—and France; and it is also very popular in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. With this popularity, there is a global flow of both horses and racing personnel between these countries. Horse racing in Japan is likewise becoming increasingly an international affair, with an eye to competing at a world-class level.

Japan Cup Opened Up Japanese Horse Racing

Japanese horse racing, after trailing behind the top countries for years, opened its doors to the world in 1981, with the launch of the Japan Cup. This was the first Japanese race to involve outstanding horses from other countries and to offer a large purse. Initially, the horses trained in Japan were no match for their overseas rivals. The winner of the inaugural race was the American thoroughbred Mairzy Doates, which triumphed by setting a record time for the Japan Racing Association. It was not until the fourth year that a horse trained in Japan, Katsuragi Ace, was able to defeat the foreign competition. And the following year the race was won by another Japanese horse, Symboli Rudolf—the winner of the Japanese Triple Crown and known as the top horse in JRA history. These two victories demonstrated that, at least on home ground, horses trained in Japan could compete on an equal footing with the world’s top thoroughbreds trained in Europe, North America, and Oceania. Over the 30 years since its inauguration, the Japan Cup has been won 16 times by Japanese horses—as compared to 14 by horses from other countries, including four victories by British horses (the most by a single foreign country).(*1) The race itself was approved as an international Group 1 race in 1992.

Another development worth noting is the significant increase in opportunities for world-class jockeys from Western countries to compete in Japan under the JRA’s short-term (three-month) license system. Jockeys who regularly compete in Japan include Olivier Peslier and Christophe Lemaire, two of France’s best, and Italian jockey Mirco Demuro. The presence of these foreign jockeys has helped to raise the technical level of their Japanese counterparts by intensifying competition, and also highlighted worldwide the quality of Japanese horse racing and its top jockeys.

Entering the Home Stretch

The next step up the ladder for Japanese horse racing is to produce results in major overseas races. There would be no better opportunity to prove itself to the world than winning at France’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, one of the most prestigious races in the world.

In past decades, very few Japanese horses ran in overseas races, and those that did failed to do well. But beginning in the 1990s, around a decade after the start of the Japan Cup, the number of Japanese horses competing overseas rose quickly. Thanks in part to the overseas efforts of Take Yutaka and other Japanese jockeys, Japanese horses began to chalk up wins outside of Japan. The first horse trained in Japan to win an international G1 race at an overseas track was Seeking the Pearl, ridden by Take, which triumphed at the 1998 Prix Maurice de Gheest, a French sprint race. Japanese horses went on to make their presence felt at major races held in Australia, Britain, France, and the United States—and in the surging economy of Dubai, driven by oil money, and of Hong Kong. In 2011, the Japanese thoroughbred Victoire Pisa made international headlines by becoming the first horse trained outside Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States to win the Dubai World Cup, the race with the biggest purse in the world.

But winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe remains an elusive goal for Japanese horses. El Condor Pasa, winner of the 1998 Japan Cup, did manage to place second in 1999, as did Nakayama Festa in 2010. This has meant that expectations have been growing every year among horse-racing fans and insiders for a Japanese victory. The good showing to date of Japanese horses at races around the world already attests to the world-class caliber of the horses themselves and their training. Still, no horse trained outside of Europe has ever won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. If a Japanese horse could accomplish this feat, the reputation of the nation's racing would soar.

As difficult this challenge may be, the horse racing community around the world is now aware that there is a good chance that a Japanese horse could win. No one knows when that day of victory will come, but it seems safe to say that it is drawing near. (November 14, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ Shortly after this article was written another Japanese horse won the latest Japan Cup, on November 27, bringing the total to 17 wins by horses raised in Japan.

Britain France Horse racing Japan Cup JRA Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Sakai Kazunari Nakayama Festa Seeking the Pearl El Condor Pasa