Enhanced prize-money tempts owners to keep horses in training
Caoimhe Doherty looks at the strong field of older horses for the February Stakes in Tokyo
A common criticism of Flat racing in Britain and Ireland is the fact its stars often do not stay around for very long. So the entries for the February Stakes, the first of Japan's 24 Grade 1 races and held in Tokyo on Sunday, make for interesting reading.
One of only two Grade 1 races on dirt in Japan, the contest is run over a mile and is open to four-year-olds and older. The race is now also a 'Win and You’re In' race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Of the 26 original nominations, exactly half were six or older, with only two geldings holding an entry and three mares taking on the other sex. Of course, it is not uncommon to see geldings race on in their later years, but to have ten entires aged six and above prepared to compete at the highest level is something racegoers outside of Japan might look on with envy.
Perhaps the most notable entry was Denim And Ruby, a daughter of Deep Impact who has two Grade 2 wins to her name and four Grade 1 placings. Often the bridesmaid, her most notable runner-up performance was when beaten on the line by the champion Gentildonna in the 2013 Japan Cup.
The idea of a mare of this calibre competing in her seventh year is not unheard of but rare indeed in Britain and Ireland.
Denim And Ruby has won three of her 20 starts, 17 of which have been in Grade 1 or 2 company. If she were to run in the February Stakes it would be her first run on dirt and could be a primer for what is now the second richest race in the world, the Dubai World Cup.
Other notable entrants were last year’s winner Moanin (aged five) and the 2014 and 2015 winner Copano Rickey (seven).
Economic forces in Britain and Ireland have led to a situation where stud owners are prepared to stand stallions at the end of their two-year-old seasons. The market wants to buy fast two year olds, we race them, we retire them, we breed them and so the cycle continues.
But Japanese horsepeople can afford to dance to their own tune. The vast betting turnover there can support and grow a lucrative industry and the substantial pots encourage more horses to stay in training.
An often-missed fact is that 55 of 129 Graded races in Japan are run over a mile or less with ten of those being at Grade 1 level, with 15 Graded races on dirt. Furthermore, the majority of NAR (local racing) is on the dirt. So the emphasis is not purely on the turf stayers who draw the headlines in Europe.
The bonus of keeping high-profile horses in training is that it allows those animals to be the true stars of the sport. The extended career path of Denim And Ruby allows the public to have an affinity with her and to follow her famous yellow, black and blue colours from one season to the next, whereas in Europe we are accustomed to the racing life of a star on the Flat typically being three years at best before the breeding shed beckons.
The February Stakes should not be dismissed as an insignificant race happening on the other side of the world. It serves as an ideal of what Flat racing could be like.