I arrived Wednesday evening at the Keio Plaza Hotel, the official press headquarters for the Japan Cup, after a 24-journey from Kentucky. Despite the lack of a good night's sleep since Saturday, I still had that 3 a.m. jet-leg alarm go off in my head my first night here.
The itinerary for Thursday was to meet in the lobby for a 6 a.m. bus trip to Tokyo racecourse to observe the training of the five international horses in Sunday's Japan Cup—two-time Breeders' Cup Turf winner Conduit and Grand Prix de Chantilly winner Scintillo from Europe, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic winner Interpatation, Northern Dancer Turf winner Just As Well and 2008 Canadian International winner Marsh Side from North America.
I walked into the lobby earlier than my customary five minutes late, asking the bell captain at precisely 6:01 a.m. if the Japan Racing Association bus had yet arrived. “It left a minute ago,” he said. I shouldn't have hit the snooze button.
No worries. Shinjuku Station is just a five-minute walk from the hotel, and there's a Starbucks on the way. But Tokyo, I discovered, is not an early-morning town. Starbucks wasn't open yet, and for good reason. The streets are deserted at that hour of the day. This is, it turns out, a city that sleeps.
THE TRAINING WENT WELL ENOUGH, and the press conference that followed was predictable. Jonathan Sheppard may be the only trainer who spoke that would pass a lie-detector test. Each trainer (or assistant) of the five international horses was asked on a scale of 1-to-100 how his Japan Cup entry was doing. All said 100%, with the exception of Sheppard, who said “about 95%.”
A brief summary of the international horses:
Scintillo seems overmatched in here, but Richard Hannon is a trainer to be respected. The son of Fantastic Light is clearly a horse who likes a distance of ground, so he should be closing in the final stages of the Japan Cup. But a victory would shock me.
Conduit. Trainer Michael Stoute hadn't arrived yet, but his assistant said the decision was made to run in the Japan Cup following a post-Breeders' Cup evaluation of the son of Dalakhani's condition. I have to think the travel from Europe and back for the Breeders' Cup, followed by the trip to Japan, might take a toll. But he's entering stud in Japan for 2010, and this is a chance for Conduit to go out in style in front of the breeders who will have the opportunity to support him at stud.
Interpatation. Trainer Bobby Barbara and owner Elliot Mavorah (pictured, right) seem to be having the time of their lives in Tokyo, and why not? It's an all-expense paid trip for the horse and his connections, and it's nice to see an owner and trainer who are clearly making the best of it. Mavorah profusely thanked the JRA for extending the invitation and said he hoped the horse's performance justifies it. Despite Interpatation's win over Gio Ponti on a deep, deep Belmont Park turf in the Joe Hirsch, he'll be an enormous longshot on Sunday, and the ground will be firm. Someone asked Mavorah about the name, and he told a story about how he was an Orthodox Jew and was trying to build a synagogue and needed some type of legal interpretation. He wanted to name the horse “interpretation,” but that name was taken, so he purposely spelled it wrong and that name went through.
Just As Well. Wouldn't a Japan Cup victory be an interesting tale for this 6-year-old son of A.P. Indy, who was off nearly two years while experiencing lameness that veterinarians never could fully explain. During that time, breeder George Strawbridge elected to get rid of Just As Well and Sheppard made a deal with his longtime friend and client to buy him. “It would be a shame for someone else to get him and be successful,” Sheppard said he told Strawbridge, adding that Strawbridge wins whenever Just As Well wins because he still owns the dam and some siblings. But a Japan Cup victory would still be a tough one to explain to the boss!
Marsh Side. He was the hard-luck horse of the 2008 Japan Cup when he was scratched from the race due a fever after arriving in Japan. Trainer Neil Drysdale thinks the 6-year-old by Gone West is best suited to large turf courses like Tokyo's, along with the courses at Woodbine and Dubai. “He's a big horse and doesn't run as well on the American courses with their tighter turns,” he said. Marsh Side will stay in training in 2010, said Drysdale–who was accompanied to the podium by bloodstock agent Patrick Lawley-Wakelin—unless someone is interested in standing him at stud. “I believe he deserves a chance to be a stallion,” Drysdale said. Hint-hint!
NAOHIRO GODA IS MY GO-TO GUY on all matters pertaining to Japanese racing. He is a world traveler, savvy about racing and breeding just about anywhere, but a true expert on what's going on in Japan. Goda said 2009 will be the 12th consecutive year that pari-mutuel betting on JRA racing will be down—despite numerous measures by the government entity to increase handle through an expanded menu, a rearranged schedule of Grade 1 races in the autumn, and even a reduced takeout promotion on some major races. In 2011, the JRA will be introducing a pick five wager (similar to pick threes, pick fours, and pick sixes in the U.S.). Multi-race wagers have previously not been legal in Japan.
The big problem, Goda said, is that Japan's trendy youth market is less and less interested in the sport of horse racing. They are more interested in computer games and other sports, especially soccer. Betting on soccer has been introduced in the last decade, and that's hurt horse racing, too. One of the most popular bets on soccer is a computer assisted wager that eliminates any need to think or handicap.
Horse racing isn't the only form of gambling that is suffering in Japan. Legal betting on motorboats and bicycle racing is down, too, and the Pachinko parlors (the closest thing Japan has to slot machines) are also off.
Despite the dire news about Japanese horse racing, it's still a pretty popular sport, as evidenced by the throng of writers and photographers on hand for Thursday morning's workouts and press conference. Tokyo's daily sports newspapers are devoting several pages to the Japan Cup, despite the absence of a true Japanese superstar this year. It is still big business and Sunday's Japan Cup will be sure to draw more than 100,000 people to Tokyo race course, and handle on the race will dwarf what is wagered on Kentucky Derby or Breeders' Cup Day in the United States.
THE JAPANESE REALLY DO GET CAUGHT UP IN FADS. Just two years ago, when my wife Carol and daughter Meg traveled with me to the Japan Cup, we came across Tokyo's first Krispy Kreme donut shop just to the south of the Shinjuku Station. We were amazed to see the DisneyWorld-like lines outside the story, complete with a sign telling the donut-hungry public how long the wait would be to get inside (it was 45 minutes when we walked by…and, no, we didn't wait). This morning, when I returned from the track I noticed there wasn't a single person standing outside the Krispy Kreme shop. I guess it's yesterday's news. But those warm donuts are still just as tasty!
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