Could Belmont Run By Epicharis Be Start Of Something Big For NYRA?

by | 06.07.2017 | 12:15am
Epicharis is the first Japanese-based horse to be eligible for the $1 million bonus offered by NYRA in the Belmont Stakes

The New York Racing Association hopes Epicharis' participation in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday will help to usher in a new era of regular appearances by Japan-based horses in its major races.

NYRA officials persuaded Epicharis' connections to make the long journey from Japan by offering a $1-million bonus if their quest should culminate in victory. Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations and racing secretary, said similar initiatives are being explored.

“We'd like to open it up to other races that we have,” Panza said, “and we are working with the Japan Racing Association to look at races that would fit into their schedule.”

The Metropolitan Mile, Travers, Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks could be among the major races in play in the next year or two, according to Panza. “It's about building relationships,” he said, “and the more we do this, the more relationships we build.”

Martin Panza, NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations

Epicharis is by Gold Allure, a son of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, who became a breed-shaping stallion in Japan. Epicharis dominated in his three starts as a 2-year-old, winning by a combined 25 lengths. After a victory in the Hyacinth Stakes in Tokyo in February, he absorbed his lone defeat, losing by a nose to Thunder Snow in the UAE Derby at Meydan racecourse in Dubai on March 25.

Epicharis is poised to give Japan a second consecutive starter in the Belmont Stakes for the first time in the 149-year history of the grueling mile-and-a-half “Test of the Champion.” Lani, after finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness, helped crack open the door by launching a wide rally to finish third in last year's Belmont.

Keita Tanaka, an agent for Koji Maeda, Lani's owner, believes last year's solid performance was something of a game changer for many owners and trainers when it comes to the final leg of the Triple Crown.

“Getting third place in the Belmont with Lani gave us a great deal of confidence,” Tanaka said via email. “Before last year, Triple Crown races in America have been something we watch on television. But now Japanese horsemen are quite seriously considering bringing their horses.”

Lani, a Tapit colt who quickly became notorious for his unruly behavior, represented the second Japan-based starter in Kentucky Derby history and the first since Ski Captain finished a distant 14th at Churchill Downs in 1995. Lani was the first horse from Japan to compete in all three Triple Crown races.

Cesario was another ground-breaking horse. She became the first Japan-based starter to win a Grade 1 race in the U.S. in taking the American Oaks on July 3, 2005, at old Hollywood Park.

Panza said he expects Kentucky Derby and Preakness officials to intensify their efforts to attract Japanese representation. Churchill Downs introduced Japan's Road to the Kentucky Derby this year to no avail.

Why such an interest in that distant part of the world? Not surprisingly, the answer revolves around money. Perhaps lots and lots of money.

United States racing executives took notice when Japan changed a law in 2015 to allow 24 races of international significance to be simulcast into what had previously been a closed market. They really snapped to attention when the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the first race simulcast under the new law, generated a staggering $38,054,501 in handle. The amount wagered in Japan on that one race exceeded the handle in France on the entire Arc program.

Ensuing simulcasts of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf ($7,326,940) and the Dubai World Cup ($12,542,002) were not of the same blockbuster variety. They were still impressive enough.

“That is a huge market,” said David O'Rourke, NYRA's vice president and chief revenue officer. “The more exposure we can get in that market, the better for Thoroughbred racing overall, not just us.”

The Belmont will be the first Triple Crown event available for wagering in Japan. The race will be telecast on the Japan Racing Association's Green Channel, which is dropping its paywall for this event. O'Rourke estimated that the handle will fall between $10 and $20 million in Japan. He declined to specify the fee Japan will pay to receive the signal, describing it only as a “standard” simulcasting rate.

The successful recruitment of Epicharis highlights a two-year effort by NYRA. It invested in new quarantine barns at Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. It arranged for an insurance policy last December as part of introducing the $1-million bonus. And Panza traveled last February to work closely with Japan-based NYRA representative Nobutaka Tada in offering at least one million reasons to send a top 3-year-old to the Belmont Stakes.

Epicharis, shown winning the Hyacinth Stakes in February

Even without a bonus, Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes have inherent appeal, starting with the surface at the massive mile-and-a-half track known as “Big Sandy.”

“Belmont Park is most similar in condition to a Japanese dirt course,” said Atsushi Koya, the Japan Racing Association's chief representative at the organization's New York office. He noted that the top layer of dirt tracks at home is composed of three and a half inches of loose sand.

Koya believes most dirt horses in Japan still trail their American counterparts. At the same time, much of the success in the Belmont Stakes involves staying the mile and a half. Classic dirt races in Japan are contested at that distance, leading their breeding industry to place greater emphasis on stamina.

Travel will always be a daunting obstacle. Epicharis arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on June 1 to end a 24-hour odyssey that included a layover in Anchorage.

Epicharis' trainer, Kiyoshi Hagiwara, said through interpreter Soshi Inowe that the son of Gold Allure ships exceptionally well. He described the journey as “no problem” and added, “He is a horse that adapts to new environment easily.”

Panza expects Epicharis to acquit himself well enough to build on what Lani started.

“He wouldn't be here if they didn't think he was doing well,” he said. “They don't come to lose.”

  • Michael Castellano

    A good idea by NYRA officials? Finally.

    • msneri

      Our cats are twins. Amazingly similar color details

  • Ida Lee

    If all the Japanese horses are as charismatic, handsome and talented as that “holy terror” Lani and Epicharis, everybody wins with this deal especially the horse racing fans ….

  • Al Milano

    With Classic Empire out this race becomes a Grade 2 as I view it. Sort of like the Wood Memorial. Maybe we get the same outcome.

    • Ida Lee

      …I hope Irish is “reading” your comment ….

    • Barry

      I dont think Classic Empire had the pedigree to make a dent at 1 1/2 miles so his departure does not make much of a difference. That being said, I dont see a clear pedigree standout in this field like Tonalist, Jazil or his half sister Rags to Riches.

      • Al Milano

        Barry, I couldn’t agree more. I wasn’t trying to handicap the runners, only making a statement about the race. Classic Empire was going to be the only Grade One winner in the race (I believe), which gave it a semblance of class. The ‘Test of Champions’ has now become no more than the ‘Test of Who Showed up 3 Weeks After the Preakness.’

        Empire could have affected the outcome of the race, giving it some high class pace as he did in the Preakness. That pace wiped out the Derby winner who folded like a cheap claimer.

        No matter, I won’t be betting this race at all and may not even watch it. The outcome may be meaningless in terms of helping rejigger the 3 year old scene. It’s just a race.

        • MaiyaDay

          I think if Gormley wins, he’ll join Always Dreaming as the only colt to win 2 G1s this year and launch himself back into the picture for top 3yo colt. But other than that, I agree with you – pretty insignificant for the 3yo scene.

      • MaiyaDay

        Patch, sired by a Belmont winner, damsire was a Belmont winner, second dam’s sire was a Kentucky Derby and BC Classic winner, inbred to two Triple Crown winners (Seattle Slew and Secretariat), isn’t a pedigree standout…?

        • Barry

          His pedigree is better than some in this field but I am more impressed with the pedigrees of J Boys Echo and Senior Investment.

  • Realfan

    Would love to see a victory by Epicharis! I think it would be great for international racing!

  • Jbumi

    Epicharis was seen grinning like the Cheshire Cat when he heard about Classic Empire’s defection from the race.

    Good luck & safe trips to all!!

    • ctgreyhound

      Can Epicharis seize on this opportunity? If the distance is in his wheelhouse perhaps sitting out the Derby was a better move than ever.

      • Jbumi

        I think he has a good chance to get the one jewel of the Triple Crown that his grandfather (Sunday Silence) didn’t!

  • Doug Bennett

    What is the Japanese appetite for chalk hammering? Total WPS pool in last year’s Belmont was $17.1m. With Classic Empire scratched, Epicharis 2nd choice ML at 6-1, “between $10 and $20 million” of Japanese wagers added to the Belmont Stakes pools – could the UAE Derby runner-up, who faded at 1 3/16, go off at 2-1 or 1-1? Please say it’s so.

    • RayPaulick

      Money will go into a separate pool in Japan and not be commingled with U.S. pool.

      • msneri


      • Doug Bennett

        Thank you for the clarification. I was wondering how that would work.

  • kevin smith

    good chance epicharis scratches treated with bute lameness in front

  • Since Epicharis came up lame recently, I don’t think he should run. I was dying to see him race & I was rooting for him, but it’s not worth it.

  • Dave Stevenson

    NYRA has had a very close relationship with the JRA since the late 70’s when its representative led a committee to Tokyo to explore and assist in the writing of the conditions and quarantine policies for the first Japan Cup. The race was the first open event in the history of Japan racing and was won by American filly dozy dotes. Japan has subsequently eclipsed the quality of global pedigree.

  • Bob Hope

    should have read Maizy Dotes

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