This weekend, 15 years ago, 22 million Japanese viewers tuned in to watch the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
That’s almost 20 percent of the Japanese population who watch a horse race halfway around the world – at 2 a.m. It highlights what continues to be one of the most unlikely national obsessions in world sport.
Japan has been trying to win the Arc since 1969. Speed ââSymboli was the first exotic visitor from the Far East to line up at Longchamp on the opening Sunday in October. He was the best at home. But against the European elite, Speed ââSymboli could not be classified until the 10th place of the Irish winner Levmoss.
It sparked some national embarrassment, shattered some illusions, and helped spark the transformation of Japanese backwater racing to world-leading in just three decades.
Supported by the government and with stupendous earnings generated from betting turnover, billions have been invested in importing the best European and American bloodlines.
The result is a racing environment envied by almost every other major racing jurisdiction, especially in terms of massive audience popularity which explains why 20% of Tokyo and Osaka watch a race at two in the morning.
Much of it is game-related, but it’s far from the full story. Japan’s top jockeys have celebrity profiles. The best horses inspire wildly enthusiastic fan bases. At the top of the meetings, crowds of up to 100,000 people generate an atmosphere more akin to a football stadium than to the reserved area.
So when Deep Impact lined up for the Arc in 2006, it felt like a fate, a perfect international ending to a remarkable achievement.
The son of Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence was an outstanding Japanese Triple Crown winner and ridden by the country’s top rider, Yutaka Take. An estimated 15,000 fans flocked to Longchamp from Japan to see it win firsthand. The weight of money from tours has made Deep Impact an odds favorite. Bets were made only to have tickets held for âI was thereâ purposes.
And then Deep Impact inflated its lines by finishing only third. Those of Longchamp that day remember the stunned Japanese fans crying as they left the stand. More salt was rubbed into those tears when Deep Impact was subsequently disqualified from third place for failing a doping test. Fate had turned into disaster.
It is difficult to determine precisely why the Arc has become such a âholy grailâ for Japanese racing.
The biggest stars
Its national standards have long been established to rank among the best in European and American racing. Although Japanese runners have enjoyed success around the world, including in top Australian races such as the Melbourne Cup, the price points generally make staying home more lucrative. Even the riches available at the Breeders Cup do not encourage the Japanese much to travel there.
Yet the prospect of Arc’s success repeatedly attracts the biggest Japanese stars to Paris.
Perhaps the crux of this was how close El Condor Pasa came to victory in 1999. On boggy terrain, the raider came close to pulling off every race. Only the exceptional Montjeu succeeded in overhauling it. Initial disappointment mixed with pride in a superb display suggesting that the Arc’s glory for Japan was a case of âwhenâ and not âifâ.
The setback of Deep Impact has seriously shaken this confidence. In 2012, it looked like fate had played a cruel trick in the defeat of another Triple Crown champion, Orfevre.
The strange chestnut rose to the top under Christophe Soumillon with the victory apparently in the bag. In the final strides, however, Orfevre went inexplicably wrong, allowing the unannounced Solemia to rally. There was no excuse a year later when he was a finalist again, but it added to a growing frustration that still hasn’t shaken the obsession. It has become a matter of national pride.
” It is totally true. It’s all in the Arc until they win it, âconfirms former jockey and television expert Fran Berry who was a guest rider in Japan for several years.
âI asked the same question, why the Arc and not the Epsom Derby or the King George. But there is a link that goes back centuries. And since Deep Impact gets beaten and Nakayama Festa (2010 finalist) and Orfevre gets beaten, it’s piling up more and more. Anything that can travel goes to France, âhe added.
Curragh’s coach Willie McCreery also worked in Japan and was struck by the racing industry’s desire to be viewed positively in Europe.
âIt would mean the world to them, win outside the continent, come to Europe and win. They love the elegance of everything French and the Arc is huge. They love to be able to compete outside of Japan, to be seen on an equal footing because they are not seen to be on an equal footing just by running in Japan, âhe said.
âThey are obsessed with the Arc. No one has ever explained it to me, but they are. But they are obsessed with everything they are passionate about and fanatical about their races, âhe added.
On Sunday there will be a two-pronged Japanese attempt to finally get the job done. Deep Bond defeated Aidan O’Brien’s Broome in an Arc Test, the Prix Foy, at Longchamp last month. Yet it is the Chrono Genesis mare that promises to be the number one hope. Killarney champion jockey OisÃn Murphy was signed up for the race months ago.
Chrono Genesis is a proven Group 1 winner at home and last spring was unlucky behind one of Europe’s best horses, Mishriff, at the Dubai World Cup meeting. Dermot Weld has referred to her as as big a threat to her own Tarnawa prospect as European classic horses like Aidan O’Brien’s Snowfall and Derby heroes pair Godolphin, Adayar and Hurricane Lane.
As the daughter of 2004 Arc winner Bago, she is an example of imported blood modeled on Japanese preparation and performance. Emphasizing the fluid nature of elite international competition, Snowfall’s father is nothing less than Deep Impact. Deep Bond is a son of Kizuna who finished fourth in the 2013 Arc.
âWhen I was in Japan, they tried to bring horses to France during the summer for the test races. The horse that won recently [Deep Bond] took this route. It’s different with Chrono Genesis flying late. They have tried by all means to see what works best to get them there in great shape, âsays Fran Berry.
The fact that cracking the code remained stubbornly impossible for so long doesn’t seem to have diluted Japanese hopes of finally doing it. On the contrary, it seems to have only increased the attractiveness of the large breed. The biggest race for all ages in Europe has always been about excellence, but never more so than on the other side of the world.
This is why millions of people in Japan will rise again at an unholy hour in the middle of the night to watch another tilt to the glory of the Arc and why the outcome will be more important to many more people than one. simple winning bet. The victory will be the justification of an obsession which has lasted for more than half a century. The 100th Arc could hardly have a more fitting or meaningful success to celebrate.
Past performances of the Japanese bow:
1969 10th gear symbol
1972 Mejiro Musashi 18th
1986 Sirius Synboli 14th
1999 El Condor Pasa 2nd
2002 Manhattan CafÃ© 13th
2004 Tap Dance City 17th
2006 Deep Impact 3rd – later disqualified
2008 Meisho Samson 8th
2010 Nakayama Day 2nd
Victorie Pisa 7th
2011 Hiruno d’Amour 10th
11th Nakayama Festival
2012 Goldsmith 2nd
2013 Goldsmith 2nd
2014 6th Star Harp
Just far 8th
14th Gold Ship
2016 Makahiki 14th
2017 Satano Diamond 15th
Satanao Noblesse 16th
2018 Clincher 17th
2019 Kiseki 7th
Onepiece explosion 11th
2020 Deirdre 8th