The Land of the Setting Sun?

Equinox | Horsephotos

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It felt like a literal solstice, a moment marking our transition to a different phase in the alignment of the Thoroughbred firmament. Because the meteoric performance of Equinox (Jpn) in Dubai on Saturday night, as highlight of another momentous evening for Japan, left rival breeders everywhere speechless. Perhaps, they wondered next morning, this was what was meant by a Sunday silence.

There are so many lessons in Japan's accession as a dominant influence on the 21st Century Thoroughbred, a trend that even the most obtuse and parochial of us cannot fail to observe, that it's difficult to know where to start.

When, for instance, will those industries clinging to a historic presumption of superiority–either side of the Atlantic–acknowledge what's happening sufficiently to reverse the traffic and start importing Japanese racehorses to stand on their own farms? Not for a while yet, you suspect, given that you would need to be confident of commercial demand to make the necessary investment viable. And for now it seems an adequate challenge to get traction even for those few representatives of Japanese bloodlines to have at least showcased their wares before a domestic audience.

But it's not as though this latest tour de force–featuring winners of the biggest prize on both surfaces at Meydan, as well as the first four in the G2 UAE Derby–was founded simply in stallion trade. The Japanese have certainly embraced many sires renounced as uncommercial by breeders in Kentucky and Europe. But that investment has been consistent with a holistic strategy, embracing the right mares, the right land, the right horsemanship.

Obviously the Japanese have enjoyed advantages, in terms of colossal gambling and government engagement. But all these unmissable moments of vindication, as in Riyadh last month or at the 2021 Breeders' Cup, have completed patient years of groundwork, during which Japan was sometimes viewed as a convenient, nearly gullible receptacle for the cashing out of unwanted genetic goods.

As commercial breeding elsewhere has become ever more focused on the sales ring, the Japanese meanwhile persevered with a longer game. Selection was predicated on the kind of assets, like stamina and durability, that are treated with something between dread and derision in other markets. But now we see the results.

Certainly nobody can remain deceived that this has all happened because of a single, game-changing roll of the dice on Sunday Silence. And if Japan did not get here overnight, nor can those industries now being challenged expect to retrieve the situation other than by patient increments.

Let's take G1 Dubai World Cup winner Ushba Tesoro (Jpn) as a snapshot. He is, admittedly, by a grandson of Sunday Silence. But the dam of Orfevre (Jpn) is by a sire, Mejiro McQueen (Jpn), who not only represents the fourth generation of a sire-line transplanted by the arrival from Europe of Partholon (Ire) in 1963, but also extends an indigenous maternal line through eight generations of Japanese mares to one foaled as long ago as 1909.

Partholon, by the way, ended up as Japan's champion sire on three occasions, having won the Ebor H. at York, over 14 furlongs as a 3-year-old. The die was cast. Because if we're going to give due credit to the bottom line, then here's a question that I should like to ask any American breeder mating a mare this spring.

Say the resulting foal becomes champion sophomore or maybe, instead, he could win the second richest race on the planet. Either would sound pretty good, right? Well, what do the last two horses to reach this pinnacle of dirt racing, Epicenter (Not This Time) and Ushba Tesoro, have in common?

The answer is that the third dam of both is a daughter of Ela-Mana-Mou (Ire), one of the most redoubtable stamina influences in the recent history of European grass racing. Ela-Mana-Mou's two best-known sons were Double Trigger (Ire), who swept the Cup races in Britain including the G1 Ascot Gold Cup at 20 furlongs, and Snurge (Ire), whose Classic success came over 14 in the G1 St Leger.

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that this single, attenuating strand specifically accounts for the excellence of Epicenter and Ushba Tesoro over two turns of dirt. But what I do believe is that this forgotten horse–virtually unknown in Kentucky, presumably, beyond its substantial community of emigre horsemen of a certain age–is typical of the overall “branding” today enabling Japanese runners to carry their speed so unanswerably.

Look at Panthalassa (Jpn) (Lord Kanaloa {Jpn}), who switched from turf to win the world's richest prize in Riyadh last month. Hardly anything in his pedigree indicated a likely proficiency on dirt, but it is saturated (sprinting sire notwithstanding) with toughness and stamina. His first two dams are by Montjeu (Ire) and High Estate (Ire). One has had a record impact at Epsom, the other was by a Derby winner and sired one himself. The next dam was admittedly by a sprinter, but out of a mare by another undiluted source of staying power in dual Arc winner Alleged.

This kind of thing is not confined to the Japanese, of course. The World Cup runner-up Algiers (Ire) (Shamardal) admittedly represents a versatile sire-line, but there are deep wells of stamina in his pedigree. His dam is by Platini (Ger) (Sumuru {Ger}), a horse that once outstayed even Ela-Mana-Mou's son Snurge. (And Shamardal himself requires us to reflect how his dam's half-brother Street Cry {Ire} became a Classic influence on dirt, as they are out of an G1 Irish Oaks (12f) winner by the ardent stayer Troy {GB}).

Certainly Ushba Tesoro himself is laden with staying influences. His sire Orfevre is a Japanese St Leger winner (15f) by Stay Gold–another son of Sunday Silence who majored in soundness (still showing top-class form at seven) and stamina (stayed two miles). And his dam is by King Kamehameha (Jpn), whose fertility as a source of brilliance was hardly impaired by his Classic success over 12 furlongs. She was out of one of the more accomplished runners (couple of graded stakes wins on turf after export to Bobby Frankel) by Septieme Ciel, a generally disappointing stallion by Seattle Slew. Ela-Mana-Mou then enters the picture as a mate for a daughter of the imported Argentinian sire Pronto (Arg).

We should not be surprised, then, if the Ela-Mana-Mou mare who features as Epicenter's third dam should be out of a daughter of Busted (GB), whose two best sons Bustino (GB) and Mtoto (GB) both sired winners of the G1 Ascot Gold Cup over 2 1/2 miles. (Nor, if anyone is inclined to complacency in a commercial industry that can produce Flightline, should we neglect that the champion's second dam is by Roberto's son Dynaformer, while his sire's granddam is by Nijinsky).

More predictably, perhaps, similar motifs occur just as prominently behind Equinox, sensational winner of the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic. His sire Kitasan Black (Jpn), a grandson of Sunday Silence, twice won a Grade 1 over two miles; while his damsire King Halo (Jpn) (out of a mare by Sunday Silence's sire Halo) is by Dancing Brave, one of the all-time European greats yet soon written off to Japan as a stallion. Equinox's granddam is herself by a rejected Arc winner in Tony Bin (Ire), while the next dam is by a dual winner of the race in Alleged.

We just found Alleged, remember, lurking behind Panthalassa as well. And while his own background–by Hoist The Flag/inbred 3×4 to War Admiral–may take us into the mists of time, it also takes us right to the crux of the matter. Because dirt racing is about carrying speed, and that is itself a form of stamina.

Interestingly Tony Bin also provides the second dam of UAE Derby winner Derma Sotogake, who must be getting his stamina from the bottom side as a son of the imported American sprinter Mind Your Biscuits. Derma Sotogake's damsire is Sunday Silence's son Neo Universe, a Japanese Derby winner beaten a length in the 15-furlong St Leger. The way he destroyed his pursuers last Saturday permits no doubt that Derma Sotogake has the maternal wherewithal to carry his sire's speed and–setting aside last year's farcical tactics from the two UAE Derby graduates–nobody should be complacent that the GI Kentucky Derby itself can be secure from Japan's expanding hegemony.

Evidently there is no guarantee that Equinox will be given the chance to slake a rather longer thirst in the Arc, which is a pity given the Longchamp winners seeding his family, not to mention the fact that his own sire contributed two of Japan's serial near-misses in the race.

But just imagine what would happen if the Japanese suddenly felt sorry for the industries they compete with, and donated Equinox to Kentucky or Britain. Would the commercial breeders of the Bluegrass, anxious to catch the eye of an Ocala pinhooker, come flocking? With his background, I doubt it. What, equally, would Nathaniel (Ire) tell Equinox about the kind of harem a proven Classic influence can expect in Britain? (That's the same Nathaniel who added the latest Epsom Derby winner to a resume already including Enable (GB), yet is still only charging £15,000 and increasingly relying on jumps mares).

And there's your answer, really. If we want to recover the ground lost to Japan, then we need to understand just what these rampant Japanese racehorses are digging into: seam after seam of soundness and stamina. Of course they need brilliance too. That's where the whole skill of breeding comes in, maintaining that cutting edge of speed. Yet one after another of these horses have been sired, not by recent imports, but by horses that have been developed in the Japanese program, many of them holding their form year after year, generally on turf and over what many would consider appalling distances.

Yes, we must reiterate the shrewd selection of mare imports over the years. The $750,000 paid for Ushba Tesoro's granddam, for instance, doubtless owed little to her sire Septieme Ciel and rather more to the fact that had managed to add more black-type to the famous Claiborne clan of her fourth dam Bourtai.

But what kind of reception, honestly, would Deep Impact (Jpn) himself have had in Lexington, as a winner over two miles? American breeders didn't want his sire, but did they ever learn that lesson?

At least commercial breeding in Kentucky still aspires to a second turn on the first Saturday in May. But while I'm always recommending dirt sires as a way–and a proven way–to transfer a speed-carrying capacity to European Classic racing, the Japanese are meanwhile reminding us that the reverse also applies: that there's nothing like grass stamina to help keep up the gallop on dirt.

As I acknowledged at the outset, it would be commercially difficult to export an elite runner from Japan to stand in Europe or America. But now that they are taking their excellence onto a global stage, perhaps that kind of gamble may gradually start to inch a little closer.

In the meantime, only a few horses have had the chance to introduce Japanese blood to domestic racing theaters elsewhere. Unsurprisingly, the most promising experiment to date is the work of John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore, who outcrossed one of their many top-class daughters of Galileo (Ire) to Deep Impact (Jpn) and produced Classic winner Saxon Warrior (Ire)–whose debut crop includes GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf scorer Victoria Road (Ire). Saxon Warrior's fee this spring is up to €35,000 from €20,000, and the same operation is now hoping to repeat the process with Auguste Rodin (Ire) (Deep Impact {Jpn}). The strong favorite for the Epsom Derby is similarly out of a high-class Galileo (Ire) mare, and actually won the same juvenile Group 1 as Saxon Warrior last fall.

Not many people, however, have either the resources or the imagination to emulate this kind of thing. As things stand, a Japanese sire-line entered the North American general sires' list in 2022 only at No. 92 through Silent Name (Jpn), who offers Ontario a direct conduit to Sunday Silence. And we do also have Yoshida (Jpn), a grandson of Sunday Silence, about to launch his first juveniles. His Grade I wins on both turf and dirt were due reward for the rare enterprise shown by WinStar in importing a Japanese yearling to race in the U.S.

Sunday Silence's son Hat Trick (Jpn) was a noble earlier experiment, and Gainesway bought into the project after he pulled Group 1-winning juvenile Dabirsim (Fr) out of his hat as a freshman. (The same farm, to its credit, evidently also liked the fact that Karakontie (Jpn) is out of a Sunday Silence mare.)

Unfortunately Hat Trick dwindled to 19 mares at $5,000 in his final spring in Kentucky, before ending his days in Brazil. Dabirsim did meanwhile produce Royal Ascot winner Different League (Fr), an €8,000 weanling who advanced her value two years later to 1,500,000gns. That sum, incidentally, was ventured by another far-sighted Coolmore partnership, co-signed by M.V. Magnier and White Birch Farm.

Obviously it was always unlikely that such rare samples of Japanese blood should happen to prove as potent as the best of their gene pool. But who knows? Perhaps we will gradually learn a little humility. Perhaps we can admit to ourselves that, where Japan has strengthened over the past couple of generations, is precisely where we have allowed things to slide.

As always, there's an ultimate consolation to the way this business functions. But eventually the people with the daring and the imagination to take a harder path, and heeding Japan's example, will be waiting for your horse on the racetrack.

We're all being taught a pretty deafening lesson here. That doesn't mean many people are necessarily going to pay attention, even if the Japanese now plunder the Kentucky Derby itself. But it'll be pretty obvious, in a few years' time, just who was listening, and taking notes, before going away to complete their homework.

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