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Anime phenomenon Uma Musume is ensuring that the feats of past champions like 1994 Triple Crown winner Narita Brian can be appreciated by a new generation of fans.
How do young, 20-something Japanese racing fans of today possibly know what raceday gear was worn by 1994 Triple Crown winner Narita Brian, whose three-stage triumph played out before many of them were even born?
The answer, as it is increasingly when it comes to the next generation of captivated ‘keiba’ disciples, is Uma Musume, the hugely popular animated series and smartphone game that is helping to maintain – and indeed enhance – the legacy of Japan’s champion racehorses of yesteryear.
Uma Musume’s portrayal of the 1994 Horse of the Year is of course in keeping with all the past JRA greats it features: as a young girl with horse tails and ears, who races her many fierce rivals around a turf track in what is known as a ‘Pretty Derby’. It is in the carefully curated detail, however, that the cartoon truly succeeds in bringing that stilled blood and bone back to life.
A colt with concentration issues, Narita Brian did all of his racing in a shadow roll. His Uma Musume namesake, hence, competes with a small bandaid on her nose.
It’s a subtle nod, but it exists as one tiny part of a much larger animated ecosystem designed to attach personality and context to racetrack feats long concluded: in honouring its past, Japanese racing is enriching its future.
Other historical references in Uma Musume are more overt. Gold Ship – the headstrong ‘mad’ grey known to, when the mood struck, rear up in the gates and miss the start – is depicted doing just the same in one Pretty Derby race.
Uma Musume similarly pays tribute to the racing pattern of legendary frontrunner Silence Suzuka, though the fatal injury the horse sustained in the 1998 Tenno Sho is sanitised, replaced instead by a much more minor, treatable fracture.
Champion miler Taiki Shuttle is assigned the fastest of all the Pretty Derby characters, her light orange hair acknowledging the internationally-acclaimed chestnut’s handsome colouring (that the ‘speediest’ horse featured in Uma Musume is a miler is a delicious homage to Japan’s breed-shaping belief in stamina!), while one of the show’s main protagonists in Japan Cup winner Special Week – who was wet nursed after losing his dam Campaign Girl as a very early foal – is presented with the backstory of having ‘two mothers’: birthed by one and cared for by the other.
Then there’s Tokai Teio – whose comeback win in the 1993 Arima Kinen after being sidelined for an entire year with a broken leg is one of the most all-time celebrated JRA performances – who is portrayed with a delicate high-step reminiscent of Japan’s 1991 Horse of the Year.
Narita Brian is himself largely a bit-part player in Uma Musume, operating on the periphery as a brooding ‘lone wolf’ whose only desire is to run.
That trait was very much evident in Narita Brian the horse, who was the star attraction of the Japanese turf during his heyday, a staying, plundering force who retired as the world’s highest ever stakes earner until deposed by fellow Japanese T M Opera O in 2000.
Prepared by Masaaki Okubo – who died in January of 2023 aged 87 – Narita Brian became just the fifth Japanese horse to win the Triple Crown, his 1994 success coming exactly a decade after the previous hattrick completed by Symboli Rudolf. Deep Impact, Orfevre and Contrail have since joined that Triple Crown honour roll.
A son of Florida Derby winner Brian’s Time out of the Northern Dancer mare Pacificus, Narita Brian surprisingly competed over 1200 metres at his first three starts as a two-year-old, winning once. He started to really excel once stretched out in trip by Okubo, winning three of his next four including the G1 Asahi Hai Sansai Stakes at Nakayama, the same track that would later host one of his most famous victories.
It was as a three-year-old in 1994 that Narita Brian cemented his legend status, tasting defeat just once from seven starts.
After winning both his lead-up races, Narita Brian destroyed his rivals in the first leg of the Triple Crown, forging clear in the 2000 metre G1 Satsuki Sho as he carried the number one saddlecloth to a new course and race record, and a three-and-a-half-length win.
Six weeks later the G1 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) was won by a more decisive five lengths, that trademark shadow roll cutting a swathe up the middle of the Tokyo track to the raptures of the crowd.
After an uncustomary defeat in the G2 Kyoto Shimbun Hai, the scene was set for Narita Brian’s shot at Triple Crown glory, although there were some concerns raised about the prospect of a wet Kyoto track for the G1 Kikuka Sho. The ground mattered not one iota as Narita Brian swept the three-year-old majors with his most imperious display to date, charging home a seven-length winner.
Not finished yet, Narita Brian would return on Christmas Day that year to hand out another galloping lesson, this time to the older horses in the G1 Arima Kinen.
Despite his three-year-old heroics, Narita Brian’s perhaps most famous performance would come when seeking to defend his G2 Hanshin Daishoten crown in 1996.
Reduced to second favourite by the presence of the new kid on the block, the 1995 Kikuka Sho and Arima Kinen winner Mayano Top Gun, the two-horse war that was waged at Hanshin remains one of Japan’s most revered races.
Head and head for the entirety of the Hanshin straight, Narita Brian would this time call upon all of his inner competitiveness – rather than tap into that superior ability that saw him so effortlessly sweep the Triple Crown – to prevail narrowly for Yutaka Take, who rode in place of regular pilot Katsumi Minai.
For his part the vanquished Mayano Top Gun has also been featured in minor roles within Uma Musume, and is described as a ‘rambunctious troublemaker’, possibly for having the temerity to so challenge one of Japan’s greatest of all time.
Narita Brian was retired to stud in 1997 but would pass away the following year at just seven years of age due to a gastric rupture. Although that early passing left a legacy unfulfilled as a sire, Narita Brian was recognised as Japan’s greatest ‘Horse of the 20th Century’ and the attention-to-detail of the cultural phenomenon that is Uma Musema means his brave brilliance won’t soon be forgotten.
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