Michael Cox



Where are the Japanese? Work to do to entice Asian participation in spring carnival

Not for the first time a virus has stalled momentum on Japanese participation in Melbourne’s spring carnival.

When Delta Blues beat Pop Rock, clearing out on the rest of the field in the 2006 Melbourne Cup, some predicted it was the start of a wave of Japanese dominance in Australia’s most famous race. 

Instead, the 2007 equine influenza outbreak meant neither horse returned for the following year’s race. Momentum was halted and Japanese visitors became a drip feed rather than the expected flood. Admire Rakti won the 2014 Caulfield Cup, but died after his Melbourne Cup start, one of just six unplaced Japanese runners, at that point, to contest the feature since 2006. 

Melbourne’s 2019 spring was Japan’s – a Caulfield Cup to Mer de Glace and Cox Plate to Lys Gracieux – and could have restored the flow, but again a virus, this time Covid, stymied international involvement for the following two years. 

The return of widespread European participation to pre-pandemic levels was announced on Tuesday – 56 horses nominated from 26 trainers across the big three races –  but Japanese horses were conspicuous by their absence.


Paul Bloodworth, Racing Victoria GM – Racing and International Operations. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images)

Speaking to The Report in the aftermath of the spring feature nominations announcement, Racing Victoria General Manager of Racing Operations and International, Paul Bloodworth, was contrite on the topic of Asian participation: yes, Covid had again caused disruption in the form of flight shortages and as-yet unsolvable logistical puzzles, but he admitted that the strict vetting procedures are seen as an obstacle by Japanese connections. 

“I do not want to discount that,” Bloodworth said, although he believes that the issue is more a problem with communication rather than concern from trainers that their horses will be scratched on race-eve. 

“There may have been some misunderstanding around veterinary protocols that the Japanese trainers have, which we have more work to do on, in communicating clearly to them.” 

Racing Victoria explored the option of a charter flight for Japanese horses but both RV and race clubs balked at the price and the option was pulled. 

“It was a chicken and the egg situation: we knew trainers wouldn’t commit to Australia without a flight but we couldn’t commit to a flight without that commitment from trainers,” Bloodworth said. 

We knew trainers wouldn’t commit to Australia without a flight but we couldn’t commit to a flight without that commitment from trainers.

“It was a bit of a dance and we couldn’t proceed with any surity. We didn’t want to end up with a gigantic bill if only a few horses took the opportunity of coming.”

Damian Lane and Yoshito Yahagi after winning the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley. (Photo: John Donegan/Racing Photos via Getty Images)

Despite the unwillingness to front the money for a charter flight, Bloodworth was adamant that Asian-trained horses were still a priority for the carnival. 

‘We highly value Japanese participation,” he said. “Japan has got some of the best horses in the world and at the core of it that is the aim of us internationalising our racing, to pit our horses against the best in the world. 

“It is great for the Australian fan, and it is great to engage those Japanese fans that we know are some of the most passionate in the world.”

Japan has got some of the best horses in the world and at the core of it that is the aim of us internationalising our racing, to pit our horses against the best in the world.

As the years tick by without Japanese runners, the trouble for Victoria is that there is an abundance of lucrative options for Japanese horses to travel for free and chase big purses – the Dubai World Cup, Hong Kong International Races and the rapidly growing Saudi Cup all offer all-expenses paid travel packages. Sydney also looms as a competitor, in spring – the now-$10 million Golden Eagle a possible option for Japanese three-year-olds – as well as autumn. 

Not only that, the Japan Racing Association has dropped the Caulfield Cup and Melbourne Cup from the list of races eligible for simulcast betting if Japanese horses are entered; only the Cox Plate is eligible for betting in Japan should a Japanese horse start. 

Since Lys Gracieux won the Cox Plate, Japanese horses have dominated, in numbers, on the world stage: her trainer Yoshito Yahagi alone has since won eight overseas races in four different countries. And it’s not all about money: Yahagi is currently on a largely self-funded summer tour in England and France with two horses racing for far less than what is on offer in an Australian spring.

Lys Gracieux, ridden by Damian Lane, wins the 2019 Ladbrokes Cox Plate. (Photo: John Donegan/Racing Photos via Getty Images)

The answer for Melbourne, Bloodworth hopes, is to get in front of Japanese connections – in Japan, with a translator – and try to convince them to return. 

“I know that there have been periods where the Japanese, once they stop, don’t come back for a few years, so of course we are concerned about it, but I am heartened by the European response so far post-Covid and the new protocols, that I have been able to go and explain to them face-to-face our protocols and that has produced results,” he said.

“I am hopeful that if we do the same thing in Japan we can start again and we can get those nice horses back down here again.”



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