Caulfield Cup winner Mer De Glace is off to the Melbourne Cup. Pic: Getty Images
Caulfield Cup winner Mer De Glace is off to the Melbourne Cup. Pic: Getty Images

How Japan became a racing superpower

Japan's rise as an international superpower owes nothing to chance.

In the words of gun Irish jockey Jamie Spencer and leading Australian trainer Ciaron Maher, there is nothing accidental about the emergence of Japanese horses and horsemen as international racing's most feared force.

Simplicity, quality and strict application of rules are at the heart of a process which has already netted the Land of the Rising Sun the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate this spring.

 

Damian Lane rides Mer De Glace to victory in the Caulfield Cup. Pic: Getty Images
Damian Lane rides Mer De Glace to victory in the Caulfield Cup. Pic: Getty Images

 

Trainer Yoshito Yahagi with Lys Gracieux after its Cox Plate win. Pic: AAP
Trainer Yoshito Yahagi with Lys Gracieux after its Cox Plate win. Pic: AAP

 

For Damian Lane, the primary benefactor of the island nation's obsession with impeccable bloodlines, integrity and training practices, it is a simple equation.

"They have superior athletes, they are world-class athletes," he said.

"I'm lucky enough to have gone across on that (mid-year) stint and it's still paying off.

"Everything is geared towards producing these world-class athletes."

Spencer agrees.

"Their racing is so strong at home, they don't really travel that much," he said

"So when they do travel, they win generally. Like Deirdre at Goodwood (winning the Nassau Stakes).

 

 

"They've been unlucky not to win the Arc.

"The one (Christophe) Soumillon rode (Orfevre in 2012) was obviously unlucky."

Spencer says long-term strategy is the foundation of recent success, including those by Mer De Glace in the Caulfield Cup and Lys Gracieux in the Cox Plate.

"But it's not just by luck it's happening," Spencer said.

"If you go to the sales in Kentucky, they go and buy the best.

"They buy Derby winners. They bought the King George winner Harbinger and they bought Workforce. So it's not by default.

"They buy the best mares at the sales and they try to buy the best stallions, even the ones in Europe, even though they've got great stallions at home.

"They're reaping the dividends. I think it's great for racing.

"To watch that filly (Lys Gracieux), it was great."

Maher, who has travelled to most of the world's leading racing jurisdictions, said "breeding is a big part" of Japan's achievements.

 

Trainer Ciaron Maher is a big fan of the Japanese method of training. Pic: AAP
Trainer Ciaron Maher is a big fan of the Japanese method of training. Pic: AAP

 

"They've got the right stallions, they buy mares that are racetrack performers rather than just on breeding," he said.

"They put more emphasis on racetrack performance, which I think is a good thing.

"A bit the same with their stallions.

"Also, the success has to do with the way they condition their horses.

"They've got good tracks and they use a fair bit of sports science and if something doesn't work they change it.

"They don't sort of wait. If they don't get the right feedback, they change it.

"It's no surprise. They've come a long way and they're right up there with the best of them."

As flexible as the operating trainers are, the same cannot be said for the Japan Racing Association's rigid approach to equine education and licensing.

Jockeys are closely monitored and, ahead of some meetings, are confined to dormitories without access to phones or computers.

A public company, the JRA answers to the Government's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The JRA has oversight of race tracks, betting outlets, training centres and licensing of jockeys, trainers, owners and vets.

The highest standards apply to participants.

Jockeys must attend riding school for three years before facing an examination.

 

Top jockey Jamie Spencer knows Japanese success is “not just by luck”. Pic: Getty Images
Top jockey Jamie Spencer knows Japanese success is “not just by luck”. Pic: Getty Images

 

Trainers rarely obtain a licence in Japan before they turn 40 because of the confronting processes.

Each February, up to 150 aspiring trainers attempt an exam in search of a licence. Only a handful pass.

Once licensed, trainers work as assistants for several years.

Eventually, they are allowed to have 70 horses on their books but can access only 28 boxes at JRA's training centre, obliging them to move horses from pre-training facilities to the track.

The funnelling effect is designed to extract the best - from horse and human.

It's quality over quantity.

Much like Hong Kong's Sha Tin, Japanese trainers have access to the best facilities.

Swimming pools, water treadmills and veterinary amenities are merely some of the off-track tools.

Integrity is world-class with unstinting scrutiny of every phase of the operation.

The overall impact - at home and abroad - is staggering.

Japan stands on the cusp of an astonishing clean sweep ahead of Tuesday's Melbourne Cup.

If Mer De Glace becomes the first horse since Ethereal in 2001 to pocket both major spring Cups, coupled with Lys Gracieux's rollicking Cox Plate success, Japan will own the Melbourne spring.

If so, as Maher and Spencer observe, it won't be an accident.

Meticulously planned and brilliantly executed, the nation's rise has been a long time coming.

Mer De Glace is TAB $8 second favourite to win the Cup.

leo.schlink@news.com.au

News Corp Australia


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