One year after Japanese-trained Lani started in all three Triple Crown races and earned a classic placing with a third in the Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G1), the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and Belmont Stakes have rolled out welcome mats for Japan-based 3-year-olds.
Churchill Downs, along with the Japan Racing Association, established a Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby that saw horses earn points in two races there. The Japan points system is separate from the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system. The latter includes North American graded stakes and the UAE Derby Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2).
The New York Racing Association is offering a $1 million bonus to any Japan-based horse to win this year's 1 1/2-mile Belmont. The bonus would be on top of the $1.5 million race's winning purse.
On Feb. 19 Epicharis, a grandson of 1989 Derby and Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Sunday Silence, secured the top Japanese Derby spot with his Hyacinth Stakes win. After the approximately one-mile race, the connections of owner U Carrot Farm and trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said they were considering a trip to Meydan for the March 25 UAE Derby. They could follow that international trip with a venture to the U.S. for the Kentucky Derby.
Should Epicharis turn down the Kentucky Derby slot, the option would next fall to the connections of Mont Saint Legame (second in points) then Adirato (who ranks third). If all three pass, no Japan-based horse will qualify through this method for 2017.
Churchill officials have been in contact with the JRA to ensure connections of the top three point earners understand the possible opportunities.
Churchill spokesman John Asher noted there is always interest in the Derby from Japan, but it definitely increased last year with Lani in the field. He said he's a bit surprised the Derby hasn't seen more international participation and success.
Churchill and NYRA officials have worked together to try to attract Japan-based starters this year. They noted that besides increased international exposure, the classics could benefit financially if Japan designates either or both races for simulcast into the country. In 2015 Japan changed its rules, allowing for a limited number of international race simulcasts each year.
The first U.S. race to receive such a designation, the 2016 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1T), saw Japanese horseplayers wager approximately $7.68 million on the race despite it being conducted at 4:43 a.m. local time. The Filly & Mare Turf featured Japanese-bred multiple graded stakes winner Nuovo Record.
"With Japan opening their simulcast markets to the world on a limited basis, we believe this has the potential for incredible growth for racing here in the U.S.," said NYRA senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza. "In NYRA's talks with Japanese officials, they have conveyed to us that races with Japanese horses would be preferred for simulcasting."