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Opinion: The Derby retains its magic but the Tokyo Yushun is on the rise

With two of the world's great Derbies run in the space of seven days at Tokyo and Epsom, David Morgan questions whether the original British version is still ‘unmatchable'.

Lester Piggott will have plenty more said about him this week and that is as it should be in this of all weeks. The late, great jockey’s mass appeal was built on the bedrock of a race that will happen for the 243rd time on Saturday; a contest that has long been rooted in its hitherto unbudgeable position as the world’s most important, the original, the Derby.

‘The Long Fellow’ won the Epsom Classic nine times. That record is unlikely to be matched and though Piggott’s fame transcended the sport, his legend is enwrapped in Derby folklore.

He is a unique icon, yet there was something symbolic, perhaps, in the timing of his passing when on that same day, Japan’s greatest jockey Yutaka Take won the Japanese Derby – the Tokyo Yushun – for a sixth time. Take is his country’s icon.

While Piggott was the last prominent link to the great Derby days of the mid-20th Century, before the sport in Britain slid to become near-to-last pick in the mainstream sport schedules, Take is the face of Japanese racing’s buoyant present, in which the Tokyo Yushun is the race.

Putting aside the Kentucky dirt track outlier, they are the two most important Derbies in the world right now: Britain’s richest race at £1.125 million (AU$1.96 million) and the world’s richest Derby, carrying a purse of ¥418 million (AU$4.49 million). Epsom bills its race as ‘Unmatchable’ but is it?

The weight of the Derby’s history and the names attached to it attest to its greatness. It is a spine-tingler of an event, but in a changing world, in a changed sporting landscape, is it unmatched in fulfilling the measure of its founding, as the preeminent champion maker, stallion producer, breed shaper, and popular attraction? The Tokyo Yushun, after all, has grown from a colloquial concern into a race of real international significance.

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Do Deuce and Yutaka Take win the Tokyo Yushun. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

Sir Michael Stoute has won the Derby five times. He has also won majors the world over, including the Japan Cup. His Desert Crown is favourite for this weekend’s Derby at Epsom, thanks to a Dante Stakes win at York last month, and, as the veteran trainer departed the Knavesmire, he gave Asian Racing Report his thoughts on the question.

“The Japanese Derby is moving forward, of course, it is an important race,” he said. “That’s a very wealthy organisation and it’s a very lucrative prize. Epsom, though, I still think has some magic about it and we’ve got to be sure we maintain it.”

The Derby’s maintenance, though, is at the mercy of the hotchpotch dysfunction that is the British racing industry, which has overall woeful prize money, a funding model that barely works, too much bookmaker influence and disparate entities vying for their own interests.  

Meanwhile, the Tokyo Yushun is protected and nurtured by the JRA, which manages every aspect of the racing side of the thoroughbred industry, including the tote and the income made from huge betting take – 2021 turnover was ¥3,091,112,025,800 (AU$33.1 billion) – which funds massive prize money. And then there is the Yoshida family’s powerful Shadai Group, leading the advance of the Japanese breed.

Each race has arrived at its present from differing pasts and each exists in a separate yet overlapping environment to the other. The track configuration, the cut and hue of the racegoers, the tone, all differ widely from Epsom to Tokyo, yet these two 2400-metre turf tests are the same in their core purpose: to find the generational champion and potential stallion.

Last year’s Derby appeared to measure up. Adayar, the victor, went on to land the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Hurricane Lane and Bolshoi Ballet emerged to win at the highest level afterwards.

But the Tokyo Yushun more than matched that: the hero, Shahryar, won this year’s Dubai Sheema Classic; runner-up Efforia was crowned Horse of the Year after defeating his elders in the Tenno Sho Autumn and Arima Kinen; Titleholder has bagged two Grade Ones since and a further three beaten horses have won Graded Stakes, Bathrat Leon in the Godolphin Mile included.

A look through the past six editions of each race reveals that the Derby produced 43 horses that subsequently won in Listed grade or higher, while 49 such winners came out of the Tokyo Yushun. In that period, 81 horses contested the Derby and 107 lined up in the Tokyo Yushun, for which full fields of 18 are normal.

In terms of the races’ impact on the breed this century, the great progenitor Galileo won at Epsom in 2001 and Japan’s equivalent phenomenon Deep Impact won the Tokyo Yushun in 2005. As is the case for both races, the winners overall can be a mixed bag as stallions: the 2020 Derby winner Serpentine was even gelded and shipped to Australia, whereas his Tokyo Yushun counterpart Contrail stands at Shadai Stallion Station for ¥12 million (AU$128,640).

Stallions out of the Derby in the past decade are not setting the world alight just yet, but look a little further back and Dubawi, third in 2005, is one of the world’s best and Europe’s current leading sire by earnings, while the brilliant 2009 Derby winner, Sea The Stars, sits in fifth, ahead of the late Galileo in eighth.   

Japan’s leading sire list by earnings has five Derby winners in the top 10 and seven of those 10 won at 2400 metres, headed by the great Deep Impact. Fourth on that list is Duramente, the 2015 Tokyo Yushun winner who died, age nine, last October at Shadai Stallion Station where he stood for ¥7 million (AU$75,110). Among his progeny are  the Classic winners Titleholder and Stars on Earth. 

Duramente’s 2015 Derby-winning equivalent, Golden Horn, has not come close to matching him yet and stands at Darley for £10,000 (AU$17,424).

Too many Derby horses are deemed dour and end up on National Hunt rosters. In Japan, stamina is protected and prized: bonuses are actually handed out for contesting races at a mile and a half and that in turn maintains the Tokyo Yushun’s strength.

It comes down to what the Derby in each country represents and where that sits within those jurisdictions’ overall values. 

The Derby at Epsom represents prestige, propped up by the passion of a few rich folk, but sits in contrast to a British thoroughbred industry with a clouded commercial future as well as a breeding industry with a developing bias for ‘commercial’ speed.

Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, the Tokyo Yushun, a flourishing race in a flourishing industry, represents Japan’s best and brightest and is developing, as its British counterpart once did, the future of the sport. 

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