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Bathrat Leon will be the first Japanese horse to contest France’s top summer mile race in 19 years.
When Bathrat Leon strides along Deauville’s straight mile in Sunday’s G1 Prix Jacques le Marois, the Yoshito Yahagi-trained galloper will be aiming to echo the historic feats of this week 24 years ago when the world woke up to a double Deauville hit from Asia’s rising force.
Japanese trainers had sent a handful of horses to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in the 30 years before that eight-day span in August 1998 but had not come close to nailing an offshore Group 1 win. Then out stepped the top-class filly Seeking The Pearl to win the G1 Prix Maurice de Gheest and the next weekend the outstanding sprinter-miler Taiki Shuttle defeated the G1 Sussex Stakes hero Among Men to win the G1 Prix Jacques le Marois.
The legacy of that week in Deauville is well-known, with Japanese-trained runners – about 600 all told – having since raced offshore to win 50 Group 1 races, nine of those coming in the last year.
This summer’s exploits with Yahagi, JRA champion trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida and Hideaki Fujiwara fielding horses in Britain and France, have on the one hand been a continuation of the impressive Japanese campaigns of the past year, yet, on the other, the feel has been different to the power shows at Del Mar, Sha Tin, Riyadh and Meydan: as if this European summer campaign has been a sortie rather than a raid.
Not since the first years of this century has there been as much participation by Japanese-trained runners during a European summer. But this has not been the A Team in action, not by any stretch.
Granted, Shahryar is a big hitter and the manner of last year’s G1 Tokyo Yushun winner’s defeat in the G1 Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot was disappointing; but Grenadier Guards’ loss in the Platinum Jubilee Stakes was not unexpected given his profile; and the same can be said of King Hermes’ middling runs in the July Cup and last weekend’s Maurice de Gheest, as well as Bathrat Leon’s solid performance when fourth in the Sussex.
Bathrat Leon (left) tries to hold off Baaeed in The Sussex Stakes. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
It is as if, after a decade and a half of taking a generally narrow Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe-centric view of European racing, Japanese connections, led by the current day trailblazer Yahagi, are broadening their scope again and carefully revisiting the scenes of past successes and near misses; learning, no doubt, and rediscovering what works for their horses when training in Newmarket and on the Normandy coast, and what does not.
In the two years after Seeking The Pearl and Taiki Shuttle nailed their historic wins, Europe was the offshore focus for Japan’s horsemen: El Condor Pasa dominated the G1 Prix d’Ispahan and G1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud before a brave second in the Arc; and Seeking The Pearl’s trainer Hideyuki Mori sent out Agnes World to win the G1 Prix de l’Abbaye and the G1 July Cup.
Yutaka Take brings Agnes World (red cap) with a late run to land the July Cup. Julian Herbert/ALLSPORT
Mori recalled those trailblazing days when the Report spoke to him pre-dawn at Meydan in March.
“I knew at that time that Japanese horses were getting stronger,” he said. “But Japanese connections didn’t know about racing around the world and I wanted to show the ability and power of our horses. I wanted to show that Japanese horses had a high value.
“My horses were very nice and I believed they could show Japanese owners that Japanese horses had the talent to win world class races and I went out and proved that.”
While Seeking The Pearl’s win was the first Japanese Group 1 overseas, Taiki Shuttle’s victory really rocked the boat: the Marois is one of two preeminent weight-for-age summer majors for Europe’s milers, alongside the Sussex Stakes.
A winner of the G1 Sprinters Stakes, G1 Mile Championship (twice) and G1 Yasuda Kinen at home, Taiki Shuttle joined a storied list of Marois winners that included Irish River and Miesque, and that list since features the champions Dubai Millennium, Dubawi, Manduro, Goldikova, Kingman and Palace Pier. His name sits comfortably in that company
Taiki Shuttle at East Stud in Urakawa, Hokkaido. (Photo by Getty Images)
But there were no more Japanese ventures to Deauville’s Group 1 majors after 2004. In Britain, Zenno Rob Roy was beaten when second in the International Stakes at York in August 2005; Heart’s Cry was third in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in July 2006 and then Hong Kong, Dubai and Australia became the focus for Japan’s horses, with the US experiencing the same passing and intermittent interest as Europe’s summer features thereafter.
From Heart’s Cry’s defeat until A Shin Hikari’s Prix d’Ispahan win in 2016, there was little else of note on Japan’s European agenda outside of the late-season Longchamp attempts, but Deirdre’s globe-trotting campaign and Nassau Stakes win of 2019 seemed to signal, or perhaps prompt, a shift in Japanese connections’ ambitions around Europe’s summer prizes and thoughts turned that way again, despite the relatively poor purse money on offer.
Japan’s ‘obsession’ with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe has become an inescapable cliché, a narrative born of El Condor Pasa and Orfevre, which will not die until some or other descendant of Sunday Silence banishes the trope with an overdue victory.
But this summer’s sortie by Japanese connections suggests that whatever the outcome for Bathrat Leon this weekend, Europe away from the autumnal Bois de Boulogne could once again be a regular summer destination for Japanese raiders as the nation’s horsemen look to expand again the scope of opportunity and extend further their stock’s influence outside of the JRA sphere.
Yahagi has substance to match his style
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