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.”
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.
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.”
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