Tokyo City Keiba: Shadai’s reach and talk of American adventures at Oí’s ‘Twinkle Night’

The NAR is Japan’s stock ‘midweek’ fare, but on the back of Mandarin Hero there is a sense down at Oí that the Tokyo City Keiba experience has relevance beyond its ‘local’ status.

Asian Racing Report was on hand at Tokyo City Keiba to witness the continuing emergence of the NAR. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


The parade ring before the feature race at Oí racecourse’s Wednesday Tokyo City Keiba ‘Twinkle Night’ fixture is an eye-banquet of bright lights, vibrant colours, and toned thoroughbreds wearing hoods: plain red, black, some with lettering, some without, a brown and white combo, and a couple of heads encased in blue and white checkerboard.

One of those in the ‘Secretariat’ checks is Hero Call, the race favourite for the Haneda Hai, an 1800-metre dirt contest for three-year-olds. Next year it will form the first leg of the NAR (National Association of Racing)’s new, lucrative, Japan Dirt Triple Crown for three-year-olds, along with the Tokyo Derby and the Japan Dirt Derby, all to be run at Oí.

The NAR is Japan’s local government-administered 15-track midweek racing circuit, the second tier to Japan’s central government-controlled JRA (Japan Racing Association).

In an ordinary year, the Haneda Hai would have been the race the NAR galloper Mandarin Hero contested on his way to a tilt at the Japan Dirt Derby in July. But Mandarin Hero is still in a stable in Kentucky awaiting his return home to Japan as the field of 16 circles in front of a crowd of paddock watchers stood three to six deep.


Mandarin Hero and Kazushi Kimura approach the Kentucky Derby starting gates. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

The Japan Dirt Derby is still pencilled into his schedule, it is just that if he goes that route, he will have taken a much-publicised yet roundabout way of getting there: via California and second-place in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, then 12th of 18 in the G1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

“I really wanted to run my horse in the Kentucky Derby and the dream came true,” Mandarin Hero’s trainer Terunobu Fujita tells Asian Racing Report, explaining that he was first inspired by the JRA (Japan Racing Association)’s Koichi Tsunoda-trained Master Fencer’s sixth in the 2019 ‘Run for the Roses.’

“I felt that all the atmosphere and everything around the race was all a dream. This time it was about my horse running in the race but next time I take a horse, I want my horse to win the race,” he adds enthusiastically.

Hero Call’s position as Haneda Hai favourite has much to do with Mandarin Hero and his fellow Japanese contender in Kentucky, the Derby sixth Derma Sotogake: Hero Call defeated Mandarin Hero at Oí and was fourth behind Derma Sotogake in a Listed race at Kawasaki.   

As it turns out, Hero Call runs second in the Haneda Hai. He is no match for the night’s actual hero, the dominant Mick Fire – white star on the face of his brown hood – first-up since December under Norifumi Mikamoto, and now the owner of a perfect four from four record after slamming his rivals.  

“Awesome,” reflects Mandarin Hero’s trainer the following evening.

“Mick Fire,” he continues, and there is an unmistakable respect to his tone, “I think he is a serious horse. He had a crack in his hoof, so I never thought he could run like that.”

Fujita stands in the dimness close to the Oí racecourse weighing room, out of public view across the wide sandy dismounting yard and beyond even the brilliant illumination of the track’s beaming floodlights. It is an oddity that the victor is unsaddled down there in the half-light and led back to stables without any further ado: the fans move on to the next race and the next bet.

It is a functional area: functional like the role the NAR has had traditionally in providing weekday wagering fodder to boost the local government coffers, secondary to the bigger-money weekend polish of the JRA. But at Tokyo City Keiba, the functional has found its fun in ‘Twinkle Night’ racing, with its electronic ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ melody to signal betting has closed, and the uniformed all-female brass five-piece that plays the fanfare to cheering fans before the card’s later races.

The trumpets play at TCK. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Tribute to Oi jockeys past and present. Unlike in the JRA, NAR jockeys wear their own silks, not those of owners. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Oí has an easy, ‘blue collar’ vibe, from the huge passenger jets rumbling directly over the paddock on their Haneda Airport approaches, to the ‘chicken nugget and chips’-grade of food offerings in the betting halls. Like a night at the dogs in Britain or the ‘trots’ in Australia, Tokyo City Keiba is mostly working-class folk enjoying a relaxed night of sport and wagering in a setting devoid of any stuffiness; there is even something of the fairground about the night, but without the Waltzer rides and Helter-skelters.

What it does have is the coloured lights, the food kiosks, couples young and old, the common sound of laughter among friends, children shouting out excitedly, as well as, of course, the hardened form-studiers. And it all fits with the no-frills horses running on a grit and grind surface.

It is five days after Mandarin Hero’s pioneering run in the Kentucky Derby and Fujita is still riding the buoyant emotional wave of his “dream” participation in the US. He is already looking beyond the Japan Dirt Derby to the Korea Cup in Seoul, while Mandarin Hero’s owner, Hiroaki Arai, is eyeing Dubai in March.

Mandarin Hero might prove to be just a curious footnote in the impressive story of Japanese horses racing overseas, but the fact that he is from the NAR, not the almighty JRA, makes him a pioneer regardless.

Whether or not the colt’s US participation will inspire more NAR connections to look to Kentucky is hard to say, but the likelihood is that there will not be a sudden surge in desire to head across the Pacific, particularly given the domestic incentive next year of Oí’s ‘Triple Crown’. Yet, on the other hand, the fact that Oí has a route to the Santa Anita Derby akin to the points-decided ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby,’ means that NAR trainers will have that route open to them.

Mandarin Hero's trainer Terunobu Fujita. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

The NAR's Mandarin Hero, runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby. (Photo by Alex Evers)

As Fujita says, “It’s a difficult question but probably from next year trainers will think about both, they will have those two options,” but he also notes that, “It is not a general desire,” among his fellow NAR trainers to look to Kentucky, adding, “I had experience twice before, running horses in South Korea.”

But the fact that a horse from the NAR could do what Mandarin Hero did – 18 months after the Yoshito Yahagi-trained Marche Lorraine bagged an upset win in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff on the Del Mar dirt – means that it can only have boosted confidence among JRA trainers that their dirt track runners might do on the US main tracks what their turf runners have been doing in Europe, the Middle-East, Hong Kong and Australia for 25 years.  

Fujita has even given some passing consideration to the Breeders’ Cup for Mandarin Hero but, “Breeders’ Cup will be very strong,” he says, and the reason for that is, “because a lot of Japanese trainers are looking to the Breeders’ Cup for their horses this year.”

Given the influx of so much top-class North American dirt breeding to Japan in the past four decades, it would also follow that Japanese breeders should soon enough be able to produce horses capable of winning US dirt-track majors on a more regular basis, and perhaps even a Triple Crown race is within reach. There certainly is a sense that the will among JRA horsemen to expand their success in the US is beginning to grow.

Mandarin Hero is by the top-class US dirt track juvenile Shanghai Bobby, now standing at Arrow Stud in Hokkaido. His dam is the modest dirt-running maiden Nakura Nadeshiko, who was by Sunday Silence’s son Fuji Kiseki and out of a US-bred, once-raced in Japan, Green Forest mare whose own dam was a British-bred Irish G3 winner from a North American family.

Trailblazing mare Marche Lorraine. (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)

Eventual winner Shanghai Bobby, sire of Mandarin Hero, leads the Breeders' Cup Juvenile field in 2012. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Similarly, Mick Fire is by Sinister Minister, another US-bred and raced Arrow Stud resident that won the G1 Bluegrass Stakes on the dirt before failing in the Kentucky Derby; his dam is the Brian’s Time mare Mariage, a four-time dirt track winner in Japan, who was herself out of the US-bred Armee Rouge, a daughter of the great French mare All Along.

Those solid North American and European bloodlines coming together in a Japanese-bred first dam, then paired with a North American-bred and raced imported stallion, is not uncommon, given the seemingly never-ending purchase of fresh broodmare prospects from those long-established sources.

But less than thirty minutes after Fujita spoke to Asian Racing Report, a runner with deeper Japanese roots strode out across the sandy Oí dirt surface to take the Thursday night feature, the Tokyo Princess Sho, also over 1800 metres but for three-year-old fillies.       

Surf’s Up is by the US imported stallion Drefong, but her female line has been in Japan since her US-bred fourth dam, Lady Flanders, was imported to join the Shadai broodmare band in the early 1980s. Surf’s Up’s first dam was prolific on the NAR dirt, winning 15 of 37 starts,

The Takayuki Yamashita-trained filly races for a Shadai Group syndicate set up to race horses on the NAR circuit and carries the silks of Shadai’s Teruya Yoshida. This alone gives a hint as to the penetrating reach of the Shadai group’s breeding and racing interests beyond the JRA.

Mikamoto, the man aboard Mick Fire the night before, rides the filly in the Tokyo Princess Sho. He steers her with strength and skill to win the race, pointing a cock-sure finger to the crowd as he passes the winning post.

Norifumi Mikamoto. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

His body language afterwards, when faced with a clutch of photographers wanting him to stand a moment longer for a picture, betrays a hint of subversive petulance. It turns out that Mikamoto, one of the NAR circuit’s top riders, is something of a rebel figure with a list of suspensions for such misdemeanours as taking his girlfriend into the jockeys’ room without permission and going AWOL, more than once.

Mikamoto’s non-conforming character is in some ways in keeping with the NAR vibe, though: the second tier with a bit of a chip and a sense that it has a point to prove, that it has its own personality. 

With the exploits of Mandarin Hero and lucrative international simulcast arrangements in place, it is proving that it has merit, that it has international relevance, and that horse racing in Japan is not all about the sheen of the JRA idols, it is also about the twinkle of a fun night at the NAR.




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