Students of comparative form in international racing have known for 15 years or so that the best Japanese racehorses are highly competitive with those racing anywhere else in the world. Furthermore, the wealth of their racing program has allowed Japanese owners to buy premium animals anywhere in the world and breed or race them profitably at home.
Due to the highly restricted nature of owning and racing Thoroughbreds in Japan, however, races there did not receive full credit for racing success. Until 2007, only graded stakes received black type in sales catalogs, and it was listed black type, not graded. Their listed races earned no recognition at all. As a result, many breeders would groan when the Japanese bought a good yearling from their consignment because a commercial breeder knew the chance of its earning black type in Japan were much slimmer than if the young horse raced in any other major racing country.
When the SITA (Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers) representatives approved Japan as a Part I country for International Cataloging Standards in late 2006 (for the 2007 racing year), they were doing so with the prospect and understanding that Japanese racing would be opened much more to international competition and would not be de facto restricted racing because only Japanese owners could race there.
In the last two weeks, the Japan Racing Association has announced that 162 stakes will be open to international competition this year (up from 24 in 2004) and that Princess Haya has been granted an owner’s license to race in Japan.
In the grand scheme of international competition, these are small changes, and they have come incrementally. But they are part of a larger vision for placing Japanese racing in the midstream of international competition.
Carl Hamilton, chairman of the International Grading and Race Planning Advisory Committee, said: “The international community appreciates the progress they have made. The JRA have been committed and are showing they are opening races. The additional races that the JRA have opened go through the JRA’s own grading process, and those will get grades in sales catalogs. Listed stakes get listed black type also.”
When SITA approved Japan as a Part I country, Ray Paulick wrote at the time that SITA employed a “classic carrot and stick approach” in approving Japan’s application to become a Part I country because the Japanese authorities had a long history of restrictive licensing in their relatively small but highly lucrative racing jurisdiction.
Nor is the Japanese authorities’ approach to licensing entirely protectionist. Geoffrey Russell, director of sales for Keeneland, noted that “Japan has very, very strict application rules for their own citizens to participate in racehorse ownership.”
Rollin Baugh said that “there is a fairly extensive requirement for financial responsibility for Japanese owners, and those requirements are much more detailed than anything we would be accustomed to in the US.”
With this arduous process, there is no likelihood a tsunami of overseas owners will flood Japanese racing, but there will be more attention to their sport, especially since the Japan Derby is one of the new races open to offshore entries this year.