1 October 2006
This Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe could be the most important race ever run. For if the Japanese superstar Deep Impact wins at Longchamp this afternoon, he will rightly be hailed as the best horse in the world and the racing landscape will never be the same again.
Japan will finally have cracked it. For ages the other main racing nations have marvelled at their dazzling figures for attendance, betting and prize-money, but have somehow kept up the patronising belief that the Japanese could not properly be considered racing people. We used to look on with ill-concealed amusement as earnest officials and student trainers took photos and notes of everything that moved when they came over here. You might build cars like this, but not horses. Now we have to accept that the Japanese nation is better at racing, keener on it, than anyone around.
No other country would have enough racing interest to send a fraction of the 100-strong press corps which has accompanied Deep Impact to France, and no other land elevates a jockey to the mega celebrity status Yutaka Take enjoys in Tokyo. Yet this all emanates from a territory with no racing or breeding background. The first thoroughbred did not arrive until 1895 and the sport did not take much of a grip until after World War II. The government-run Japan Racing Association was formed in 1954 and their 10 tracks racing only on Saturdays and Sundays (to avoid upsetting the working week) quickly harnessed millions through the gates and billions bet on and off track. Japan is betting keen/mad enough to last year bet the equivalent of £4.5 million on motor-boat, yes, motor-boat racing,
But the authorities and the nation still harboured something of a global inferiority complex. Indeed when I first visited in 1980 it was to help create their first international race, the Japan Cup, to try to shock their trainers out of the comfort zone that having the world’s biggest crowds, prize- money and betting turnover was giving them.
Sure enough, no local horse made the first three in the first two Japan Cups, and when Katsurogai Ace finally won in 1984 there were scenes of jubilation among the 120,000 Tokyo race fans as if they had won the football World Cup. Since then they have successfully defended the trophy on 10 occasions but the real dream has been to produce their own champion to win overseas.
In training terms Japan has already had success. Yutaka Take himself rode the Japanese handled Seeking The Pearl and Agnes World to Group One victories in France in 1998 and 1999, and won the July Cup with the latter at Newmarket in 2000. But both of them, like El Condor Pasa, who stretched Montjeu all the way in the 1999 Arc, were foaled in America. Japan had long bought expensive bloodstock from abroad but could they breed it?
Shadai Farm, in Hokkaido, is long established as Japan’s leading breeder and the close third of their horse Heart’s Cry behind Hurricane Run in the King George at Ascot in July is the key bit of evidence to suggest that Deep Impact can triumph this afternoon.
For while Heart’s Cry remains the only horse to have beaten the Japanese ace in his 13-race, £5m earning career, it is widely accepted that Deep Impact is some pounds his superior and that the defeat was due to a faulty ride by Take. If that is so, both last year’s Arc hero Hurricane Run and his Breeders’ Cup winning stable companion Shirocco should find themselves vulnerable to Deep Impact’s fabled finishing swoop. That’s provided Take doesn’t overdo the waiting tactics as he so famously did on White Muzzle in the 1999 Arc. But there were 22 runners to get behind that day, only eight this afternoon, and all calculations could be made ridiculous if no one is prepared to set a decent pace.
A great Arc should have many sides to it and there are exciting possibilities in the three-year-olds Rail Link, the third of the Andre Fabre runners, and Sixties Icon who comes here after looking awesomely impressive against lesser opponents in the St Leger. But it would be a big surprise if this evening we were to acclaim either of them as ‘The World’s Best Racehorse,’ and remember, that is the prize at stake.
For Deep Impact and his jockey there is something rather more, something built for and now believed in. On my first visit to Shadai Farm in 1980, I was taken to the grave of Tenpointo, their champion who broke a leg on the eve of an overseas campaign. Every week race fans made a pilgrimage to the tomb. I remember thinking that real racing people would not be as sentimental.
If success comes today such stuffiness will seem insufferable. The Japanese will show us – that real racing people do cry.