Japan gets ready for Arc party
Will Hayler takes a look at the Japanese challenge in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe down the years.
Makahiki (right): Could he be the one to win the Arc for Japan at last? (Copyright of the Japan Racing Association)
"Victory in the Arc de Triomphe is the dream of Japan and goal of the Japanese people."
Jockey Yuichi Fukunaga may have been slightly over-egging the pudding before he finished eighth of 20 aboard Just A Way in the 2014 renewal of Europe's most richly-endowed race, but for the millions of Japanese racing fans who will stay up into the small hours to watch the race this weekend, the end of the 47-year-quest for a first Japanese victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe cannot come soon enough.
It was back in 1969 that the first Japanese-trained horse to run in the race, Speed Symboli, finished 11th behind (Gold Cup winner) Levmoss. But while the first few runners from the country all finished at a distance behind the winners, it was El Condor Pasa in 1999 who first hit the post in the big race and gave Japan hope that victory in the Arc could be more than a pipe-dream.
The winner of the Japan Cup in 1998, he was sent for a European campaign the following year that saw him win both the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the Prix Foy before heading to Longchamp.
Ridden aggressively in the Arc de Triomphe from the start, he was three lengths clear of the pack two furlongs out and seemingly travelling like the winner. But Irish Derby winner Montjeu, who went on to confirm himself a supreme middle-distance performer at four, started eating into El Condor Pasa's advantage and, under the steely Mick Kinane, led 100 yards from the line to win by half a length.
El Condor Pasa was beaten, but his achievements in Europe nevertheless confirmed that Japan were getting closer and also heralded a shift in the global racing picture that has in more recent years seen them claim major international prizes in Australia, Dubai and Hong Kong, and firmly establish Japan as an elite racing superpower.
Taki Shuttle, Seeking The Pearl, and then crack sprinter Agnes World came across from Japan to win European Group Ones.
In the Arc though, the cards have still yet to fall for Japan. The unheralded Nakayama Festa was beaten a head by Workforce in 2010, while Orfevre finished runner-up in both 2012 and 2013, the first defeat by unconsidered outsider Solemia producing this piece of Youtube gold. Now that's pain.
In 2014, things moved up a gear when Japan went for three bites of the cherry with non-staying Just A Way, not-quite-good-enough Gold Ship, and the half-bonkers Harp Star, whose jockey seemingly thought there was another circuit to go. Still no cigar.
Last year Japanese Derby winner Duramente was well-touted for the race, only for injury to force him out of the reckoning before he'd even climbed aboard the aeroplane.
Not to be daunted though, the next challenger steps up to plate on Sunday, and according to some, Makahiki represents the country's best-ever chance of success – and considering how close the likes of El Condor Pasa, Nakayama Festa and Orfevre came, this is clearly a matter for any self-respecting punter to be considering closely.
Makahiki got the better of a sustained battle with Midterm to win the Prix Niel at Chantilly a fortnight ago, the colt's first start since scraping home in the Japanese Derby after another head-to-head scrap in May. He needs to find improvement, but there is every reason to think he will do – his campaign has been lighter than other challengers and Midterm is no slouch, with Lord Grimthorpe having stressed afterwards that but for injury intervening his colt might well have won the Dante Stakes and gone to the Derby a deservedly hot favourite.
Makahiki is a son of Deep Impact, whose place in the official Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe history books is conspicuous only by its absence. He was found to have breached a medication infringement and disqualified after finishing third in 2006.
Although Deep Impact's name, as a result, no longer appears on the list of near-misses, his participation in the Arc 10 years ago left an unforgettable impression.
One of the greatest racehorses seen in Japan in modern times and the winner of seven domestic Group Ones, his devoted army of followers travelled en masse to Paris and put their Yen where their mouths were to the extent that when the on-course pools opened for the race, Deep Impact was trading as the 1/10 favourite, leading to French and British punters (and bookmakers) frantically fighting to get their cash down in search of the resulting value elsewhere.
It was estimated that day that 5-10,000 Japanese racing fans, many of whom were festooned with the red and white national flag and confidently expecting victory, were present at Longchamp that day. It was an unforgettable occasion. But they left in tears when Deep Impact could finish only third behind Rail Link.
History has looked kindly upon that Arc. The likes of Hurricane Run and Shirocco, who finished well behind Deep Impact that day, were very smart horses. But they don't look as kindly upon that Arc as those who were able to profit from the near-24/1 starting price about Rail Link, who had already taken the Grand Prix de Paris and Prix Niel and was trained by a master in Andre Fabre. Even at the off, so much money had been staked on Deep Impact that he was sent off at 2/5 despite the best efforts of punters to re-balance the scales.
The paternal line is not the only connection between Deep Impact and Makahiki, who carries the same colours of owner and breeder, Makoto Kaneko.
For some, the decision to use Japanese jockeys instead of European riders with experience of the different way that races can unfold on this side of the world, has proved an important factor in the blank that the raiders have drawn to this point. But the booking for Makahiki of Christophe Lemaire offers both a rider who knows Chantilly like the back of his hand and whose longstanding record in Japan means he is arguably even better known there nowadays, despite a stint riding as first jockey for the Aga Khan between 2009 and 2013 that saw him regularly in action in Europe's biggest races.
Lemaire, who rode Makahiki in the Niel and will also be on board in the Arc, says the colt is "a very clever and relaxed horse" with "a big stride and then nice acceleration".
Trainer Yasuo Tomomichi says he believes the track at Chantilly – at which the Arc will now also be held in 2017, we found out last week, despite the re-building work at Longchamp being both on schedule and on budget (aye, right) – will suit his colt particularly well.
Makahiki is named after a traditional four-month holiday period on Hawaii when work would come to a halt in order to allow for a celebration of the bounty of the land. It sure sounds like a hell of a party, but even that might not be quite as big a celebration as will be taking place back home on Sunday if the colt carrying the same name can finally see Japan claim the sporting prize they covet so much.
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