by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am

By Ray Paulick

The world's biggest purses have never been available to racehorse owners from around the globe, but that all may be changing soon when the Japan Racing Association makes an anticipated announcement later this month that it will begin licensing foreign owners  as early as 2009.

News of the JRA's expected policy change was a hot “hallway topic” at the Asian Racing Conference, which officially began in Tokyo on Monday night with opening ceremonies that featured a traditional lion dance, Japanese music, and a handful of speeches from Asian Racing Federation officers, JRA officials and the minister of Japan's department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, under whose umbrella the JRA falls.

Presentations and panel discussions on a host of subjects begin on Tuesday. The conference, the world's largest international gathering of its kind, will attract more than 800 people from as many as 35 countries. The Asian Racing Federation, which organizes the conference, has 22 member nations, including two new members, the Saigon Racing Club of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Jockey Club of Russia.

Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, chairman of the Asian Racing Federation and CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, warned the gathering of the ominous problems the racing industry faces in light of the current global economic crisis and the growing competition in the gambling market. “This is not a gentle breeze that we face,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “In Hong Kong it's what we would call a typhoon.”

The licensing of foreign owners became a big issue two years ago when Sheikh Mohammed was originally denied a license for Darley Japan, which operates a stallion and breeding farm on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Eventually, Darley was awarded a JRA owner's license in the name of its Japanese manager, veterinarian Riki Takahashi (a former JRA employee), but it was relinquished in December 2007 when Takahashi abruptly left Darley after 15 years.

Details of the new licensing rules are not confirmed, but it is expected that foreign applicants will be required to meet the same financial and personal wealth standards the JRA sets for Japanese owners who compete for the racing world's highest purse structure. Owners will not be required to have a Japanese base for breeding, however.

It is likely those foreigners approved for a JRA owner's license will have to buy or breed five Japanese foals to fill their initial stable, and thereafter maintain a minimum percentage of Japanese-bred horses within the stable. That rule, which some may see as a continuation of the JRA's historic protectionist policies favoring Japanese breeders, could be a boon to the foal sale held annually in July by the Japan Racing Horse Association. The sale was launched by the Yoshida family, which for decades has dominated Japanese racing and breeding.

Darley, almost certainly will be issued a JRA owner's license, but it will be interesting to see which other large-scale international Thoroughbred operations will apply. According to Teruya Yoshida of Shadai Farm, the Niarchos and Wertheimer families have been breeding mares in Japan for a number of years and could be among the early entities to apply for a JRA license.

The rule change is not expected to allow horses that began their careers outside of Japan to participate in JRA races, with the exception of graded stakes, which are now open to foreign competitors. It wasn't so long ago that the only graded stakes open to international horses was the Japan Cup.

UPDATE: Louis Romanet of France, who chairs the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, reminded me that the JRA's agreement to open up the licensing of owners to non-Japanese was part of the agreement that allowed JRA races to be recognized in Part 1 of the International Catalogue Standards book published by the International Catalogue Standards Committee. That means JRA graded and stakes races are recognized for black-type in Thoroughbred auction catalogues around the world.

SPEAKING OF TERUYA YOSHIDA, the master of Shadai Farm said the recent turnabout by the once-shy stallion War Emblem is nothing short of a “miracle.” War Emblem, the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner who was purchased for $17 million by Shadai from the late Prince Ahmed's Thoroughbred Corp., barely had 40 foals from his first three crops, and produced no foals in 2007 or 2008.

This year, with the help of horse behavior specialist Sue McDonnell of the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, War Emblem appears to have overcome his breeding shyness, and now has about 30 mares in foal, according to Yoshida. “We are breeding him every month, at least one mare per month,” Yoshida told the Paulick Report. “We hope to breed him to as many as 60 or 70 mares next year.”

The improvement in War Emblem's attitude (the problem was never infertility, but disinterest in breeding) could not have come at a better time. Just last month, War Emblem was represented by his first Grade 1 winner when Black Emblem won the Shuka Sho at Kyoto Racecourse.

“War Emblem's best horses are just like he was,” Yoshida said. “They are very fast early and are dangerous if they are on the lead by themselves.”

YESTERDAY'S REPORT FROM THE TOKYO RACE COURSE mentioned an encounter with Michael Dickinson, the former trainer and founder of Tapeta Footings who is exhibiting his product at the Asian Racing Conference and appearing in a panel discussion focused on synthetic tracks. Dickinson, in his first visit to Japan, is notorious for walking turf and dirt courses to get a feel for their composition, and was eyeing the Tokyo Race Course grass surface in hopes of taking a stroll after the races were completed on Sunday.

The “mad genius” did, indeed, test the grass surface, calling it a “very firm” course. Did anyone really think he would come this far without walking the course?

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