SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
The consternation surrounding Almond Eye's JRA Hall of Fame snub neatly illustrates just how engaged Japanese racing fans truly are.
If the measure of a Hall of Fame’s strength is the candidates it leaves out then Almond Eye’s rejection in her first year of eligibility could be seen as a big statement from the voting panel for the Japan Racing Association’s Hall of Fame.
That is one way of looking at it, but the snub has obviously caused consternation among Japanese racing fans, bringing calls for changes to the Hall of Fame voting system, which is made up of experienced members of the racing media.
The overall take as an outsider? Well, first, the obvious: that if any modern horse has deserved ‘first ballot’ status, it is Almond Eye. But also, on the fact that there is even a public debate: what a quality problem to have. Here you have a Hall of Fame that is a properly resourced and well-presented institution that media members, participants and – most importantly – fans, all care about.
Almond Eye is the all-time record holder for Group One wins for a Japanese-trained horse with nine and was eligible because she had been retired for more than two years when the vote occurred in April.
That she was knocked back speaks to some quirks in the voting system and perhaps the conservatism of the media gatekeepers, who need more than 10 years of experience as accredited journalists to gain voting rights. A horse requires to be selected by more than 75 percent to enter the Hall of Fame. Almond Eye fell short by just eight votes of reaching that threshold while star racehorse and champion stallion King Kamehameha, who retired from the track in 2004, also missed out this year.
The steep requirements mean horses are not selected every year. Kitasan Black was the most recent horse elected in 2020, and none have entered the ‘HOF’ in their first year of eligibility since Gentildonna in 2016.
Public interest in the wildly popular Almond Eye will not only bring a focus to the Hall of Fame and the merits of each candidate, but the Hall of Fame system.
The benefits of scarcity are one thing, but Almond Eye not entering the hall under a hand canter indicates a glitch in the voting system. It would seem inevitable that Almond Eye will be honoured with a spot alongside her sire Lord Kanaloa and 33 other greats, but her denial, for now, could be a catalyst for change.
Racing fans – and we use the word fans deliberately, as opposed to punters or, worse still, the soulless term ‘customers’ – play an influential role in the sport in Japan. The inventive microshare/lease arrangements allow everyday racegoers a chance to take an interest in a horse for a low price. The investment isn’t about financial upside – the typical race club arrangement doesn’t include potentially lucrative breeding rights – it is about emotional investment.
Anybody who has even watched a G1 day from Japan – let alone been present – will have seen the slow handclap build up to a race, the brightly coloured banners around the parade ring and rousing reception winners receive upon returning to scale.
Another example for direct fan influence is this coming Sunday and the running of one of Japan’s two ‘all-star’, fan-voted Group Ones, the Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin (the other being the year and season-ending Group One Arima Kinen at Nakayama).
The Takarazuka Kinen and Arima Kinen are both incredibly popular with fans who select 10 of the horses for the 16-horse fields. There were more than 2.2 million votes for this Sunday’s race, and more than 190,000 for the top votegetter, the Tenno Sho (Spring) winner Titleholder.
The sheer number of votes and the genuine care in selecting horses on merit, speak to some of the outstanding characteristics of racing in Japan: not just the aforementioned fan engagement and their deep reverence and respect for the racehorse.
The Hall of Fame itself is situated in the JRA Racing Museum at Tokyo Racecourse, which should be included on the bucket list trip to Fuchu for any horse racing fan.
The museum has an emphasis on education for children, with interactive displays and a theatre, but retains a feel of old-world racing to it, a contrast to the edgy architecture of the massive grandstand and its modern trappings trackside.
All around the museum there are other reminders that the horse here is the hero. Statues and plaques honouring former greats are dotted throughout the racecourse’s immaculate gardens.
The statues themselves aren’t unique to Japan, but the way fans honour the former – and particularly fallen – greats, is. Particularly on G1 days, the statues will be adorned with offerings of flowers, fruit and trinkets in a touching sign of respect.
Maybe Almond Eye should have been a walk-up start for the Hall Of Fame this year, but she will get her dues. Japan’s wonderful fans will demand it.
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX