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Sunday, May 12, 2002

The King of Sports .... in the land of emperors

Staff writer

Some 15 years ago, I found racing -- or perhaps you could say that it found me. Free tickets to the international Japan Cup took me to Tokyo Race Course and marked the beginning of a continuing affair with the horses.

I don't know what it was that captured me that first time at the track. Maybe it was the incredible energy of it all, the roaring crowd, the thundering hooves. Maybe it was my beginner's luck, the easy money, the simple fun of it. It could have been being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people and suddenly realizing that no one, not one person, was staring at me; nor once did I hear the despised word gaijin.

That day I experienced a freedom I hadn't felt in a long time, a camaraderie with every person in the stands and a connection to the foreign runners and riders in the big race. We were in this together. I felt a part of it all.

Racing is many things to many people: a sport, a hobby, a profession, a passion, an addiction -- or a bit of each. It is thrilling, and tragic, and, at times, downright boring. But something about it gets under your skin. It's what they call "the romance," the extremes of emotion that eventually blend bittersweet. It becomes a part of you, for no better reason sometimes than that you were there. With the Oaks but a week away, the Derby two, I'd like to offer the reader a primer on what is known in Japan as "the king of sports."

Japanese racing is big. It's huge. The biggest, especially in money terms, is the national-level racing organized by the Japan Racing Association, an affiliate of the agriculture ministry. There is also locally organized racing, which some claim is the heart of the sport. JRA racing, however, is its lifeblood.

Total bets placed in 2001 on the JRA's 3,448 races were nearly 3.3 trillion yen -- compared to only 529 billion yen from more than 22,000 races at local tracks. JRA racing brings in more than 50 percent of Japan's entire betting revenue. Last year, close to 10 million people visited the JRA's 10 racecourses. Purses, too, are among the world's biggest, with some winners taking home 250 million yen.

The first modern horse races in Japan were held by foreigners, mostly English, in 1861 in Yokohama. Betting tickets were approved by the government in 1906, but racing did not receive its official go-ahead until 1923. In 1954, the administration of racing was totally entrusted to the government and the JRA was established. Slowly, with management practices now studied the world over, racing grew to new heights in the '90s, peaking in 1996-97. It was then that the JRA's successful marketing tactics helped draw women to the sport, and with them racing acquired a cleaner, fresher, more wholesome image. Then, too, young jockey heartthrob Yutaka Take played a major part in keeping the women interested, often attracting gaggles of screaming groupies.

In terms of attendance, the record for a single day, over 196,000 people, was set at the Nippon Derby in Tokyo in 1990. The yearly attendance peaked in 1996, at more than 14.1 million. The record for money wagered on a single race, 87.5 billion yen, was set the same year on the Arima Kinen run at Nakayama in Chiba Prefecture. Annual turnover peaked the following year, at more than 4 trillion yen.

Racing in Japan traditionally had a strong gambling image, but the boom years and increasing success of Japanese horses abroad did much to dilute this as new types of fans were drawn to the sport. The racetrack is now a popular date venue and the scene of family picnics.

That very diversification of interests, though, has detracted from the welcome anonymity I experienced in '86. The racing sheets no longer monopolize racegoers' attention. The enthusiasm, however, is still there. Fans often camp out for days at the track entrance before a big race to bag a choice spot around the winners' circle. Sometimes it's hard to tell who has the best camera equipment, the pros at the finish line or the fans in the stands. Their devotion impresses even veteran British turf reporters.

Of course, the fans fuel Japan's racing success, but the JRA provides the stage and tightly manages its players. Unique among horseracing countries are Japan's two training centers, Miho in the east, in Ibaraki Prefecture, and Ritto in Shiga Prefecture in the west, where all JRA-registered horses must train for a specified period before a race, in full view of hundreds of reporters who record comments and data for publication.

The Japanese racing fan is an avid student of data, and insistent on detail. The groans and cheers and dark mutterings emitted in unison from the stands during a race reflect just how clued-in the fans are concerning each horse's running style and each jockey's likely strategy.

There are 233 JRA trainers, all male, and each is allotted a maximum of 20 stalls in his stable, though a total of 60 horses are permitted to be registered and rotated between the training centers and outside private farms and training grounds. The centers' state-of-the-art facilities provide equal opportunity for all, but a tangle of rules and regulations is often criticized by those who feel it ties their hands and dulls the competitive edge. Also criticized are the powerful labor unions, which dictate, for one, stable workers' hours -- often to the horses' detriment.

The current standouts among the trainers are Kazuo Fujisawa at Miho, and the young Hideyuki Mori at Ritto. Both considered mavericks, Fujisawa has topped Japan's trainers for wins for the past seven years. The internationally minded Mori fielded Japan's first entrant in the Kentucky Derby, its first group-race winner overseas, and the first Japan-based horse to win a Group I race abroad.

For those unfamiliar with the terms, the high points of a racing year are its group (in Japan they are called grade) races. Horses move up by earnings through Grade III to II, and then to the top, Grade I. Races in Japan are held as a rule on weekends only. Grade I races, with two exceptions, are held on Sundays, as the next-to-last race on what is usually a 12-race card.

Racing is year-round in Japan, with the year neatly divided into a spring and fall slew of top-level races at the main tracks in Tokyo, Chiba, Hyogo and Kyoto prefectures. In the summer, races move to regional courses in Hokkaido, Niigata, Fukushima, Nagoya and Fukuoka prefectures. Two-year-olds debut in the summer, with an eye to the following year's classics, races open only to 3-year-olds.

There are high points even among the top-ranking Grade I races, the highest being the so-called Triple Crown, the three top-level races run to decide the supreme 3-year-old. Japan modeled its Triple Crown after England's, with the Satsukisho (equivalent of the 2,000 Guineas) first in April, followed by the Derby in May and the Kikkasho (St. Leger) in November. Only five horses have captured Japan's Triple Crown: St. Lite in 1941, Shinzan (1964), Mr. C.B. (1983), Symboli Rudolf (1984) and Narita Brian in 1994.

Though fillies are permitted to race alongside the colts, they also have their own Triple Crown. The all-female classics consist of the Okasho (1,000 Guineas) run in April, the Oaks in May and the new Shukasho in October.

The Tennosho, or Emperor's Cup, is perhaps the most prestigious Japanese race after the Derby. It is run twice a year, at different courses and over different distances. Following this in prestige, if not popularity, is the Arima Kinen (Arima Memorial) in December, a grand finale that brings together many of the old favorites and has been the stage for many great rivalries. With part of the field selected by fan ballot, it's a race built on memories. Often a horse's last race before retirement, it is by far the Japanese fans' most beloved.

Despite the affection bestowed on such favorite races and the stars they produce or spotlight, Japanese racing fans have reserved their highest respect for a different kind of star, the star that shines on foreign turf.

Japan's quest for victory abroad, its yearning for worldwide recognition, started in 1958, with a horse named Hakuchikara, the first Japanese horse to race overseas. It wasn't until 1969, however, that hearts were captured across the board by jockey Yuji Nohira, as he and Speed Symboli made the trip to England's King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France.

Though Nohira didn't win, his experience was instrumental in changing the face of Japanese racing. It helped turn the eyes of its horsemen outward to training and healthcare methods practiced in the heartlands of thoroughbred racing. And, more importantly, Nohira impressed the public and the country's horsemen with his all-embracing openness, humanity and eagerness to incorporate new techniques and thoughts.

However, not all were willing to throw the doors open to the outside world. Understandably, Japan sought to protect its racing industry -- above all its breeders. Races remained closed to foreign-bred stock until 1971, after which an increasing number of races were gradually opened. Today, 55 percent of all races, and more than 86 percent of all graded races, are open to foreign-born horses.

Meanwhile, the quest for success abroad continued -- at home. In 1981, the JRA, with the aim of raising the level of racing, decided to bring the world to Japan, with the launch of the Japan Cup, an invitational open to an international field. For the first decade, foreign contenders flaunted their superiority, with only two wins by Japanese horses. The foreign domination was broken in 1992, with the start of a three-year streak of victories by the home team.

The next years saw increasing internationalization. From 1994, foreign riders were granted short-term licenses to ride among the Japanese jockeys, who like the breeders, undoubtedly feared the competition, this time for hotly contested rides.

Foreign-based entrants are now permitted in an increasing number of races, currently 19 in all. The distance and great cost involved in bringing horses to Japan, however, means that few make the trip to all but the three invitationals, the Japan Cup, the Japan Cup Dirt and the Nakayama Grand Jump.

Now, the long-sought victories abroad have begun to be realized. The first group race was won by a Japanese-trained horse, in Hong Kong, in 1995; the first Group I by a Japanese jockey in 1994; the first Group I by a Japanese-trained horse, in France, in 1998. 1999 saw El Condor Pasa come closest to capturing the coveted Arc, with a strong second-place finish.

Still, records and precedents remain to be set. Barriers at home do remain. Foreigners, unless residents of Japan, are still barred from owning horses, and foreign trainers are not permitted to take advantage of the training centers. The most prestigious and richest races have only recently opened to permit a limited number of foreign-bred horses into their hallowed ranks. However, there are still no foreign-based runners allowed in the classics.

Nonetheless, the obstacles to truly international, globally competitive racing are slowly crumbling, and many believe it is only a matter of time before they too are gone. Racing depends on international cooperation and bonds of blood to grow and remain strong, and many in the industry feel it is only fair to give back some of what Japan has received from abroad.

Japanese racing is on the threshold of exciting change. Already, the visitor to the racetrack is looking at a much more international racing scene than 15 years ago. The thrills and camaraderie are still to be had. However, an ever-fairer, increasingly global attitude toward its most important elements, the horses and horsemen, means foreign visitors today can, more truly, feel a part of it all -- a part of all of it.

Get in on the action

There are no bookmakers in Japan. All betting is parimutuel. In national racing there are currently five types of bets, though two new bets are soon to be added.

* For a tansho, or win bet, the punter selects the horse to win and writes its program number (which also appears on its saddle-cloth) on the betting slip. This number is the same as the horse's post-position number.

* The fukusho, or place bet, is made on one horse and pays when it finishes first, second or third in a race with eight or more starters. In a race with less than eight starters, it pays only for first or second place. Returns on this style of bet are usually, but not always, the lowest.

* There are three types of quinellas, wakuren, umaren, and waido. These are available in races with nine or more declared starters.

* The lineup in Japanese races is divided into a maximum of eight "brackets," each represented by a different number and color. These are also the colors on the jockeys' helmets. A full-gate of 18 will have three horses in the 7th- and 8th-bracket numbers. For a wakuren bet, the punter selects one or two bracket numbers to fill the top two spots, in either order.

* The most popular bet, the umaren, is usually the one with the biggest return. For this, the punter picks two individual horses (by their program numbers) to finish in first and second place, in either order.

* For the quinella place bet called a waido (wide), the punter selects a combination of two horse numbers. These can finish in first, second or third place in any combination.

Bets on national-level races can be placed at JRA racetracks or offtrack-betting outlets known as WINS.

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