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By Anil Mukhi | 25 Nov 2016 |

Anil Mukhi

One vividly recalls the excitement that permeated the Indian Turf 35 years ago when it was announced that the Japan Racing Association (JRA) would hold a richly-endowed invitational 2400 m. turf race in Tokyo and that an Indian horse would be invited! An obvious candidate at the time was the great Own Opinion (by Simead) and he duly flew the Indian flag although it would be a stretch to say he acquitted himself well in finishing some 18 lengths off the USA-trained winner, Mairzy Doates (by Nodouble). That said, he was past his best at the time, being a month shy of turning seven.

The following year Track Lightning (by Grey Gaston) was pencilled in to travel but reportedly failed a pre-race test for piroplasmosis. And that was the end of the Indian quest for the big time. After all, how often do horses get a chance to be invited to run for a multi-million dollar prize? This year the munificent sum of  624 million yen (about Rs.38 crores) is on offer in the race, of which the winner's share is an astounding 300 million yen (about Rs.18.3 crores), such enormous sums being made possible by the Tote monopoly in Japan.

Incidentally, though it may not be popular to say so, it is the insular attitude of sections of the Indian racing and breeding industries, coupled with hard-to-fathom Government policies, that are jointly responsible for this sorry state whereby Indian-breds lack competition in India and hence cannot develop enough to take on all comers.

Anyway, 14 Japanese-trained runners will be joined by 3 international visitors this coming Sunday, November 27th, for the eleventh race of the card at Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, which is due off at 3:40 p.m. local (12:10 p.m. IST). It will be the 36th running of the Japan Cup and a crowd in excess of 100,000 is expected. Compare that with attendances in India despite its vastly larger population!

It's been rather cold of late in Tokyo but fortunately warmer weather is on the horizon and the day itself will likely be a relatively pleasant 12 degrees C, although light rain could dampen public enthusiasm.

We will start with the three international raiders, even though none of that ilk has sighted the winning post ahead of its rivals in this event since the British-trained Alkaased (by Kingmambo) in 2005. He succeeded in course record time of 2 minutes, 22.1 seconds, a distinction which he still holds. Heading the list this year is the French-trained Erupt (by Dubawi), who is coming off a victory in the Gr.1 Pattison Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Canada. Could it not be said that he is well-named for a challenge in a country sadly only too familiar with volcanoes and earthquakes??!!

The Niarchos homebred is schooled by the progressive Francis-Henri Graffard, who is quite bullish – he tweeted "Earthquake, tsunami, snow, they won’t stop him". There will be a change in the riding arrangements, though. Replacing Stephane Pasquier, who has been astride Erupt for his last eleven starts, will be the in-form Pierre-Charles Boudot who knows his mount well, having guided him to his maiden victory. Boudot recently set a new record for number of wins in a calendar year in Europe. Now a four-year-old, Erupt ran sixth in last year's renewal of the Japan Cup – beaten just over two lengths – so knows the ropes. A bigger, stronger customer this time, he can do the trick with a trouble-free trip.

Germany is responsible for a pair of runners. One of these is a repeat visitor – Nightflower (by Dylan Thomas), who finished a decent 11th last year, only about a length behind Erupt. Representing the well-known rider/trainer team of Andrasch Starke and Peter Schiergen, she is in cracking good form, having  scored recently in the Gr.1 Preis von Europa in her native land with her countrymate Iquitos (by Alderflug) behind her on that occasion.

Iquitos is making his maiden tour of the Orient. He has had a good season at home in 2016, his star burning brightest in early September when he annexed the Gr.1 Grosser Preis von Baden at Baden-Baden. A resident of the yard of  Hans-Jurgen Groschel, he is set to have Ian Ferguson in charge from his perch in the saddle. Incidentally, numerically Germany has a smaller breeding industry than India and yet here they are with a pair of challengers, having previously annexed the race through Lando (by Acatenango) back in 1995….

Several of the 14-strong home team have supped from the cup in past runnings of this race, with varying degree of success. None of these has as yet worn the sash of victory. The one that came closest was Silk Racing's  Last Impact (by Deep Impact), who was cajoled by Ryan Moore into finishing a mere neck behind his paternal half-sister Shonan Pandora last year. This time Katsuhiko Sumii's ward, who has been in indifferent form of late, has Yuga Kawada up who will no doubt try to coax him to give of his best.

Well-backed runners have had a good record in the race in recent renewals, and sure to be better fancied than Last Impact is his relative, Kitasan Black, a son of Deep Impact's full-brother, Black Tide. The consistent sort has not been unplaced at his last seven starts and boasts a Grade 1 win in the Tenno-Shou (Spring). He stays well and likes the track with two wins there from three appearances. Perennial leading rider in Japan, Yutaka Take, is the chosen pilot for the Hisashi Shimizu trainee. Apart from the betting angle, a win for the four-year-old would be popular as he is owned by singer Ono Shoji.

Rank outsider Screen Hero (by Grass Wonder) upset prognostications when he took home the 2008 edition of the Japan Cup. Much better-fancied is his son Gold Actor, who has a course-and-distance win over the track to his credit. His regular rider, Hayato Yoshida, will be astride Tadashige Nakagawa's pupil, who won the Gr.1 Arima Kinen last fall. A consistent runner, he occasionally flashes a touch of temperament.

Even though Real Steel (by Deep Impact) has never won over the 2400 m. trip, the mere presence of Ryan Moore, with his uncanny judgement of pace, at the controls is sure to garner significant support at the betting windows. The duo had teamed up to capture the Gr.1 DP World Dubai Turf over 1800 m. at Meydan back in March for trainer Yoshito Yahagi.

Given that the females of the species have outwitted their male rivals in 5 of the last 10 years, one needs to closely examine the credentials of the three of that sex that have been declared. Apart from the afore-mentioned Nightflower, four-year-old Rouge Buck (by Manhattan Café) and three-year-old Biche (by Deep Impact) will grace the starting gate. Rouge Buck has three Graded Stakes wins on her resume, while Biche has course-and-distance experience when running into a place in the Japanese Oaks equivalent.

Given the field size, luck in running is virtually certain to play a part in determining which of the seventeen Thoroughbreds says "Sayonara" to his or her rivals at the business end of the 2400 m. trip.