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It is normal for Japanese horses, including champions, to race for multiple seasons and the rest of the world would do well to follow suit to improve competition and build fan connections.
It was Dubai World Cup night at Meydan in March 2022 when Asian Racing Report approached Silk Racing’s husband and wife CEOs Masashi and Akiko Yonemoto. Towards the end of an educational conversation of a few minutes’ duration, a question was asked about two of their young prospects and how one of those colts in particular was progressing in his preparations towards the upcoming spring classics.
“Oh, you know about Equinox?” was their pleased response. Their words were measured: the colt was still inexperienced, they said, but they hoped he would be a horse for the Tokyo Yushun, the Japanese Derby. There was just a suggestion in their genial countenances that Equinox might be the one that carried the weight of their hopes, more so than the other, that same day’s G3 Mainichi Hai winner, Piece Of Eight.
Roll forward one year, and the whole horse racing world knows about Equinox. The dark-hued colt’s two-race unbeaten juvenile campaign did not lead to Classic success last spring in either the G1 Satsuki Sho or G1 Tokyo Yushun, he was second in both. But his imposing win in last Saturday’s G1 Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan followed major triumphs during the back quarter of last year, in the G1 Tenno Sho and the G1 Arima Kinen, that had him crowned Japan’s Horse of the Year.
If Equinox was a European or North American colt attaining such achievements at three – make that two for a precocious Australian speed machine –– he would more than likely have been retired that season, before he had reached his physical and mental peak: rather like if Usain Bolt had hung up his running spikes after the Beijing Olympics and left London and Rio to the next generation.
But that’s not the way of things in Japan. There the deep-rooted culture of giving their star horses some longevity to their careers is paying off, noticeably in the mass engagement of the fans who adore them, who buy the related merchandise, fill the racetracks, invest in its multi-share racing clubs, and in turn place bets that helped push JRA turnover in 2022 to ¥3,269,118,996,100 (US$24.8 billion).
To take a rough measure, in North America, only eight of the last 23 Eclipse Award-winning three-year-old males remained in training thereafter (including one gelding, Funny Cide), and in Europe, just ten of the last 23 Cartier Awards-winning three-year-old colts did not retire to stud that same year.
It’s not difficult to name a bunch: take your pick from Sinndar, Galileo, American Pharoah, Sea The Stars, Authentic, Rock Of Gibraltar, Point Given, Kingman, New Approach, Dalakhani, Golden Horn and more. It is not a recent phenomenon either, Flying Fox and Gainsborough were retired at the ends of their English Triple crown-winning seasons in 1899 and 1918 respectively.
It begs the question: Why? The answer is business of course. Coolmore, as an example, is an international breeding and racing concern that needs to turn a profit, it is not simply a plaything of rich men.
The same might be said to some degree of Godolphin/Darley and the Aga Khan Studs, yet, at the same time, those entities do still look much more like the product of a rich man’s hobby. And it never seems to make sense why a man of the Aga Khan’s wealth would put so much into trying to produce a great racehorse, only to retire the brilliant colt at the end of his three-year-old season, as he has done so often; similar can be said of the late Fahd Salman, with regard to his sublime Derby winner Generous, sold to Japan at the end of his classic season in 1991; and Sheikh Mohammed with Lammtarra, unbeaten in a career spanning only four glorious races at two and three, and also sold to Japan.
Japan’s star horses, on the other hand – their champions-in-making, fillies as well as colts – do not retire at three when the job is only partly done. They continue as a four-year-old, maybe even to age five or six, racing as fully mature athletes, putting their reputations on the line, testing the merits of their form over multiple seasons, taking on the task of conceding weight-for-age, and ensuring there are no false champions. After all, a superior version of greatness awaits a champion that excels beyond their three-year-old campaign.
Joao Moreira made a salient observation at Meydan last Saturday after Danon Beluga’s late-charging second in the G1 Dubai Turf. having been outpaced through most of the run. The Brazilian champion noted that the colt is “still a bit of a baby,” adding, “and that’s not to say that’s a bad thing; he’s still only (four) years old….”
Equinox is not the finished article either. His jockey Christophe Lemaire has stated previously that the colt is still learning at four, that he believes he is going to get better, and that was evident again at Meydan last week. He showed it with his tail-swishing, eyes scanning tension at trackwork, and his ears swivelling in the final strides of his awesome win as he processed the experience.
Japan’s latest superstar has had only seven career starts. It stands to reason there is more to come and the prospect is exhilarating. We could be witnessing one of the all-time greats – or maybe we are not – but there would be no way of knowing either way if he had been retired after his Arima Kinen win in December.
A year ago, Efforia was in a similar situation: he entered the G1 Osaka Hai first-up with seven races under his belt, including wins in the Satsuki Sho, Tenno Sho Autumn and Arima Kinen, his only defeat being second in the Derby; he was the Horse of the Year, the season’s standout three-year-old. But the wheels fell off in that injury-hit, winless four-year-old season and he is seen rightly as a champion three-year-old, but not one of the greats.
Greatness is not bestowed lightly, and when the JRA publicity campaigns announce ‘Hero is coming’, it has strong credibility wrapped up in the mythical connotations of the trope. The fans feel a connection and they feel it because they get to enjoy the best horses racing for at least three seasons, if not more.
And one effect of that is Japan’s dominance of the international scene. It can take 27 horses to Dubai and win three races, or five races, because by keeping its horses in training there is always depth to the strength, and that is not always the case in the old powerhouses of Europe.
To hammer home the point, while Equinox was on duty in Dubai, back in Japan last spring’s star four-year-old Titleholder, now five, was redeeming his reputation with a brilliant win of his own.
Granted, Japan is a different beast, coming under the umbrella of the governmental JRA and having the overarching influence of the Yoshida family and its breeding empire tied into so much of the elite racing.
But still, the old horse racing jurisdictions like Britain, beset with so many problems this century as they struggle with low prize money, small fields, a waning fan base beyond the tragic punter element, and so much else, would do well to look at Japan and see the knock-on benefits in letting racehorses race to maturity.
‘Hero is coming’, but only if you let them race.
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