Author: Nicholas Godfrey

DEVOTEES of international racing can only have heartily welcomed the Group One triumph of leading Japanese-trained mare Deirdre in the Nassau Stakes at last week’s Glorious Goodwood meeting. Among them was John Gosden, who saddled runner-up Mehdaayih. “I think to bring Deirdre over here from Japan and win a Group One like this, at a great festival, it is fantastic for international racing and for Japanese racing,” he said as he reflected on a rare defeat during a wondrous summer. “If we were going to be beaten, I am delighted to be beaten by the Japanese. It is a fabulous result for racing; wonderful for racing and wonderful for the country.” However, without wishing to appear unduly churlish, I can’t help thinking at times the attitude to what was widely described as a ‘historic success’ verged on the condescending, almost as if any such victory for Japan could be construed as nothing other than an absolute shock result.

Deirdre herself did not thrive at Royal Ascot and her connections deserve enormous credit for persevering, yet while her Goodwood victory was long overdue and notable indeed, was it really ‘historic’? Admittedly, there had been only one previous Japanese winner in Britain, namely the sprinter Agnes World under Yutaka Take in the July Cup in 2000. Now that was properly historic, and in a vastly more prestigious race as well. But that is not in any way to denigrate Deirdre’s wonderful achievement in scaling the Group One heights, given that no Japanese horse had managed to emulate Agnes World in nearly two decades since. Perhaps that is why even the team behind Deirdre betrayed signs of a national insecurity complex.

“This is very important not only for us, but also for the whole of Japan to come over to Britain and have a big race winner,” said Seiko Hashida Yoshimura, daughter of winning trainer Mitsuru Hashida and racing manager for owner Toji Morita. “Today’s victory is important for Japan because it showed that it is not just possible to come here and compete, but that it is also possible to win. Hopefully, we can have a good influence on Japanese racing with this win.” Maybe she was just being polite. Humility is a vastly more endearing attribute than hubris, after all. On the other hand, there did seem a patronising air of ‘well done, plucky little Japan’ about some of the media coverage in Britain, almost as if certain people were entirely ignorant of the nation’s prowess on the international stage. It was almost as if we were dealing with an emerging racing nation instead of a formidable superpower. Presumably nobody in Dubai needs a reminder on that score given Japan’s record on Dubai World Cup night, where Deirdre herself has made the frame in the last two editions of the Dubai Turf.

Japanese horses have now won that particular race four times in the last six years (and five times altogether), most recently with the superstar Almond Eye in March. The sea change for Japan did not come last week at Goodwood. It came in the 1980s, when the magnetic power of the yen prompted an exodus of powerful stallion talent from Europe and America to Japan, headed by the late, great Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner. The result, naturally enough, was an upturn in the quality of Japanese racing stock which, by the turn of the century, was in the front rank in international terms. Moreover, Japan’s massively lucrative industry has long been regarded as a sort of racing nirvana, boasting by far the highest betting turnover on the planet buoyed by huge attendance levels and the most enthusiastic of fans.

The nation’s bloodstock industry, based almost exclusively on the northern island of Hokkaido, is spoken of in awed tones by the rest of the world. Witness the response to the recent death of the great Deep Impact, a legendary racehorse and stallion. Frankly, given such investment, it was only a matter of time before Japanese horses were recognised around the globe, though recent evidence suggests they remained relatively unheeded in Britain, where their record is abysmal. On that basis, maybe I have it entirely wrong, and maybe Deirdre’s victory at Goodwood represented a shock of seismic proportions. Mind you, it probably was if you think racing doesn’t exist anywhere else. Maximum Security, minimum consistency IN MAY, for the first time in 145 years, the horse who passed the post first in the Kentucky Derby was disqualified. After an inquiry lasting nearly 25 minutes, almost a lifetime for US stewards, the horse in question, Maximum Security, was adjudged to have interfered with a couple of ‘also rans’ and duly demoted, with Country House awarded the race.

Now, fast forward a couple of months to the recent $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, where Maximum Security cemented his position as the nation’s top 3yo by holding off a gallant Mucho Gusto. On the home turn, Maximum Security veered inwards and impeded King For A Day on the rail. Although the latter horse may have been reaching the end of his tether at the time, the interference was at least as serious as it had been at Churchill Downs. The New Jersey stewards posted an inquiry signal straight away, and took about two minutes to announce that the placings remained unaltered. Universal worldwide harmonisation on the rules remains the elusive dream, but surely it wouldn’t be too much to ask for the various states in the same country to make reference to the same hymnsheet?

Thunder Snow: absence makes heart grow fonder WHILE he may not have beaten the excellent McKinzie, Thunder Snow’s day of race withdrawal before the Whitney at Saratoga last weekend was obviously disappointing. The dual Dubai World Cup hero coughed on the morning of the race, and a fever was soon discovered. While one can only hope this interruption to his programme proves a mere blip rather than anything more troubling, it was a trifle disconcerting to discover connections were mulling over whether this admirable racehorse might return to Newmarket to join Saeed Bin Suroor’s team before jetting back to New York for his next date in the Woodward Stakes at the end of the month. While all trainers like to see their horses with their own eyes, preferably on a daily basis, rather like a comfort blanket, a couple of extra transatlantic flights when there’s a perfectly good temporary home for him at Saratoga alongside Kiaran McLaughlin’s Godolphin and Shadwell. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure there would be any pressing need for him to set foot in Europe again before the Breeders’ Cup and it appears connections concur as he has stayed in Saratoga.

Nicholas Godfrey
International sportswriter

Why Japan’s victory at Goodwood shouldn’t have surprised anybody