Japan Rules as the JRA Turns 70

Equinox at the JRA's Miho training centre | Racingfotos


The Longines World Racing Awards were held in London last week, but it could just as easily have been in Tokyo, such was the level of support from visitors from Japan. It is easy to understand why. For as well as this event being in part a coronation for Equinox (Jpn), the best horse in the world in 2023, it was also the first time in the 43-year history of the G1 Japan Cup that it was awarded the accolade of the Longines World's Best Horse Race.

The line-up for the Japan Cup in November had a depth that would have been the envy of organisers of other major races around the world. While it contained only one international challenger – France's versatile dual Group 1 winner Iresine (Fr) – the first five horses home read like a who's who of the Japanese turf. Equinox – who else? – led home Fillies' Triple Crown winner Liberty Island (Jpn), the previous year's Japanese Oaks winner Stars On Earth (Jpn), the 2022 Japanese Derby winner Do Deuce (Jpn) and Titleholder (Jpn), the Japanese St Leger winner of 2021 who had subsequently won another two Group 1 races at four. In short, it was a proper race. 

The recognition of this, and in Equinox becoming the second Japanese horse after Just A Way (Jpn) to top the world rankings, comes as the Japan Racing Association (JRA) celebrates its 70th anniversary. 

The inauguration of the Japan Cup in 1981 provided a vehicle with which the country could set about promoting its racing industry worldwide. This in turn led to the establishment of five international JRA offices in key racing nations, a situation which underlines the global ambition not just of Japan's trainers but of its racing administrators. And it is this joined-up approach, from the breeding farms, through to the personalities and the sport's governance, which has surely played its part in the racing supremacy of Japan. 

Kanichi Kusano, the general manager of the JRA office in London, says, “We wanted to promote international racing. That's the reason why we started the Japan Cup. The objective of horse racing is to promote the pedigree. So if you don't have a strong horse competing in a race it is difficult to upgrade the pedigree, and that's another reason that we started the Japan Cup.

“To promote the Japan Cup, we need people promoting it on the ground. The London office was the first office created, 32 years ago, and that was followed by New York, and then we gradually expanded to Hong Kong, Sydney and Paris. So we have five international offices now and still we have to keep working to find the runners for the Japan Cup. That's the main purposes of these offices, to promote the Japan Cup and Japanese racing.”

The early years of the Japan Cup were liberally sprinkled with overseas winners from America, Ireland, Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany. Among the visitors, Sir Michael Stoute is the only trainer to have won it twice, with Singspiel (Ire) and Pilsudski (Ire) in 1996 and 1997. The last international winner came almost 20 years ago, when Luca Cumani saddled Alkaased for Michael Charlton. 

The following year came the turn of Deep Impact (Jpn) and since then it has been a solely Japanese success story, despite attempts from the likes of Oaks winner Dancing Rain (Ire), Arc winner Solemia (Ire), Irish Derby winner Trading Leather (Ire), and Melbourne Cup winner Dunaden (Fr). In 2022, Onesto (Ire), Tunnes (Ger) and Simca Mille (Ire) all took their chance but came home empty-handed. Well, not quite, for, as well as significant bonuses on offer for winners of major races around the world if they can win the Japan Cup, there is also a generous allowance simply for showing up. 

“The Japan Cup is invitational and we support all the transportation fees for the horses and the connections, including the jockeys,” Kusano explains. “And we also have appearance money. So for runners coming to the Japan Cup, without spending any money their owners will get at least £100,000 as appearance money. It's a great opportunity, but it is still not that easy to find runners.

“It's run in late November so obviously the trainer has to plan it, and there are lots of competitive races at the end of the season like the Arc, the Breeders' Cup and the Hong Kong International Races, so that's what we are competing against. And because we have very quick ground, not all the European horses can compete equally in those conditions, so that limits our selection as well.”

He adds, “Winning is important, of course, but just by visiting Japan and understanding the beauty of Japanese racing, that is something that we want those owners to explore, to experience another country that is staging racing.”

Last year there were 24 races around the world for which the winner was in line for a $3-million bonus if he or she went on to win the Japan Cup. In 2024, the Coronation Cup at Epsom has been added to that list, with the Derby, Prince of Wales's S., Eclipse S., King George VI and Queen Elizabeth S., Juddmonte International and Champion S. also eligible in Britain. 

In France, the Prix du Jockey Club, Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, Grand Prix de Paris and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe are all qualifying races, while in Ireland the Irish Derby and Irish Champion S. also make the list. 

It is also worth noting that it is not only the Japan Cup that accepts overseas horses. It was the country's first, but since 2007 all graded races in Japan, which number more than 120, were opened up to outside runners, including some jump races.

The tide flows both ways, of course, and since 1958, when Hakuchikara (Jpn) became the first Japanese horse to compete abroad, in the USA, the floodgates have gradually been forced open. 

The following year Hakuchikara won the Washington Birthday Handicap S. Seeking The Pearl, Taiki Shuttle, El Condor Pasa and Agnes World all won Group 1 races in France in 1998 and 1999, while the latter won the July Cup of 2000, making him the first Japanese-trained winner of a Group 1 race in Britain. 

Cesario (Jpn), later the dam of stallions Epiphaneia (Jpn), Leontes (Jpn) and Saturnalia (Jpn), laid down another important landmark in 2005 when becoming the first winner of the American Oaks and Japanese Oaks, while the following year's Melbourne Cup saw a 1-2 for Japan with Delta Blues (Jpn) and Pop Rock (Jpn).

The list goes on, with the highlights including success in Dubai for dual Horse of the Year Gentildonna (Jpn), later followed by another queen of the Japanese turf, Almond Eye (Jpn), through to last year's Sheema Classic romp for Equinox and Dubai World Cup victory for Ushba Tesoro (Jpn). And let's not forget the first two Japanese-trained winners at the Breeders' Cup of 2021, Marche Lorraine (Jpn) and Loves Only You (Jpn). The Arc still eludes Japan, but that omission will surely be rectified before too long. 

“In Hong Kong, or in the Middle East, due to the difference of racing surface, Japanese horses have been really strong, but we have not been that strong in Europe, though we still want to reach out there as well,” says Kusano. 

The nominations for the Dubai World Cup were announced this week with an ominous list of 200 entries from Japan, including the co-top-rated filly in the world, Liberty Island, and defending World Cup hero Ushba Tesoro.

“I would say we will have 20-plus runners in the end,” he adds. “The system in Saudi, Dubai and Qatar is very simple and it makes it easy to plan for the Japanese horsemen, and these big races in February and March work well for the connections.”

As for Japan's own showcase race, the Japan Cup was broadcast live in Britain for the first time last year and there are plans in place to expand that commitment to show more Japanese races to European audiences.

Anyone who has seen clips of Japanese racing fans on social media or elsewhere will understand the level of support racing enjoys in the country, and without the need of extra-curricular enticements such as post-racing concerts. Though, like many other racing nations, attendance figures have dropped, there were still almost 86,000 people on course for Equinox's swansong. That, however, is a long way short of the record crowd figure set at Tokyo in 1990 of 196,517.

“Luckily racing is still very much accepted in Japan,” Kusano says. “The largest difference between racing in Japan and other countries is that we are purely fan-engaged. We truly race for the fans, while working closely with the [horses'] connections. If you don't value the fans you will lose the interest in the sport. So that's our main focus, and I think it is one thing we have been successful in doing. 

“People in Japan purely come to watch the races, and to see the horses and the jockeys.”

They also have the chance to say goodbye to their equine heroes, with on-course retirement ceremonies for the star names a regular feature. Equinox was given his own grand send-off at Nakayama three weeks after his final triumph in the Japan Cup.

“That's another important thing, for us to educate fans that it is the cycle of the pedigree,” Kusano says. “It's sad when one great horse retires, however, that blood will continue and be passed on to the next generation, and that's really the beauty of horse racing. It's a basic thing but it's really important to keep getting that simple information and image across to the fans.”

Kusano has spent the last two years based in Britain and is now a familiar face at racecourses around Europe. While many in this part of the world look on with envy at the strength of the racing and breeding industry in Japan, he has learnt to appreciate elements of British racing. 

He says, “The beauty of it is that you have a lot of opportunities for every horse that's bred. You have 59 racecourses and a lot of handicap racing. If you look at it from the other side, as an owner, not all owners have great horses. But if you have a horse you are excited about it, whatever the horse's rating, and there is always a place for him to compete. So for that reason, I think the UK is an excellent place for giving lots of different horses and owners a chance to compete and be involved in the racing industry. That's what I have found fascinating, and it's what we do not have in Japanese racing.”

Kusano adds, “The culture, the history and the equality for racehorses and owners, that's what has interested me.”

Of the two tiers of racing in Japan, the elite JRA circuit is staged across 10 racecourses and incorporating all the major Group 1 contests. The JRA also operates the two training centres, Miho in the east of Japan, and Ritto in the west. Each has stabling for around 2,200 horses in training.  

The second tier of more regional racing is the National Association of Racing  (NAR), which is operated under the control of local governments in 14 areas and staged on dirt.

While obtaining an owner's licence for the JRA is subject to wealth and suitability checks, the rise of racing clubs has enabled a greater number of people to feel closer to the action. Silk Racing, which owns Equinox, Almond Eye and the dual G1 Hong Kong Vase winner Glory Vase (Jpn) among many others, has several hundred members involved in each horse. 

“The racing clubs have certainly helped to make more people interested in racing,” says Kusano. “In Equinox there were 500 syndicate members and they shared the cost. The syndicate system is very different in Japan as the syndicate members are not regarded as racehorse owners, they are regarded as investors. 

“But just visiting a yard, or being involved in a horse race, gives great joy to people. And that's the great advantage of horse racing. I think we need to all spend more effort promoting that special environment.”

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