Almond Eye is being aimed at the Hong Kong Cup rather than the Japan Cup this year. Photo by the JRA.

The Japan Cup without any foreign challengers

Michael Cox




This would have been the year for a foreign raider – pity none came – as Japan’s overseas obsession leaves them vulnerable at home .

The real pity that there are no international horses in the 2019 Japan Cup is that it would have been the best chance in years a foreign raider had of winning the race, a chance that may not come along again anytime soon given the trajectory of Japanese horses.

Sunday’s feature is the first time in the 38 year history of the race that a foreign horse has not started but a wide-open field that lacks some of Japan’s best stayers, and even the possibility of rain-affected ground at Tokyo – a rare luxury for European visitors – would have meant a golden opportunity for those willing to take the trip to Tokyo.

The Japan Cup has fulfilled its purpose. It was a race started as an invitational aimed at raising the level of competition in Japan – a way to test its best against the world – and was dominated by visitors in its early years. Now, it seems to have become a race considered too hard to win.

The stature of the Japanese horse globally is a remarkable turnaround and testament to an incredible system. After visitors dominated the Japan Cup through the 1980s and much of the 1990s (foreign-trained horses won nine of the first 11), overseas connections now haven’t won for 14 years and have won only two of the last twenty Japan Cups.

Since Alkaased’s win in 2005, a total of 50 overseas horses have tried and failed – the list of beaten horses includes greats Ouija Board and Danedream – and in that time, only Ouija Board has placed.

Alkaased in 2005 was the last Overseas-trained horse to win the Japan Cup. Photo by HKJC.


As the race has become harder to win, the quantity – and quality – of those visiting Tokyo has also diminished.

It is no coincidence that those results over the last 15 years – and the growing reluctance to travel half way around the world for a Japan Cup thrashing – has witnessed the rise of Japan’s horses on the world stage, which culminated with an incredible 2019 abroad.

From Almond Eye’s dominance in Dubai, Win Bright in the QEII Cup at Sha Tin, Deidre’s stellar British campaign capped with a G1 at Goodwood. then Mer De Glace’s Caulfield Cup and Lys Gracieux’s Cox Plate triumph in Australia, this was arguably Japan’s greatest ever year.

The Arc once again eluded Japan but three horses tried – Blast Onepiece, Kiseki and Fierement.

Japan racing’s year was wildly successful and to the betterment of the sport overall, but perhaps that growing overseas obsession has resulted in a weaker-than-usual Japan Cup at home.

Last year’s winner Almond Eye will head to Hong Kong rather than defend her crown, Lys Gracieux won’t be back from Australia in time to contest the race and will wait for December’s Arima Kinen. That pair, along with the beaten Arc trio, would have likely filled the first five places in betting for 2019 Japan Cup.

Then there is Deidre, who will contest the Hong Kong Vase.

Testament to the depth of Japanese racing, the top seven in fan voting for the Arima Kinen will not line up in the Japan Cup.

Japanese racing has come a long way over the past four decades; from getting thrashed in the Japan Cup to dominating abroad.

That thirst for overseas success would have left them vulnerable in this year’s race – had anybody been up for the challenge – and had any Euros accepted then the current wet weather in Tokyo would have likely enhanced their chances too.

Rain continued to fall late on Friday, and with the usual flint-hard surface at Fuchu offered as an excuse for many a well-beaten runner over the last decade, any give would have been a positive.


Cheval Grand won the Japan Cup in 2017 (Hugh Bowman) and returns for third attempt this year. Photo by the JRA.


Of course to call this year’s Japan Cup weaker-than-usual doesn’t mean it is a weak race overall, with high-calibre horses Rey De Oro, Cheval Grand and Wagnerian engaged – but it might be a long time before a foreign-trained horse strikes a better chance than 2019 would have been.

And given the trajectory of Japanese horses, the visitors may never get a better chance again.



Michael Cox is a regular columnist for Hutchi’s Honkers and you can read more of his writing on his website: Asian Racing Hub