Commentary

Land of rising horses

Updated: May 29, 2008, 7:01 PM ET
By Ray Paulick | Special to ESPN.com

Casino Drive
Horsephotos.comCasino Drive winning the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.
Casino Drive's victory in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park on May 10 would have been a groundbreaking triumph for Japan's Thoroughbred industry had it occurred 15 years ago, when horsemen in the island nation were just beginning to test the international racing waters.

Today, the Kentucky-bred son of Mineshaft is one of numerous Japanese-trained horses to challenge for some of the biggest prizes throughout the racing world. Casino Drive, who won his only start in Japan before shipping to the United States this spring, will be the solid second choice in the betting when he tries to end Big Brown's Triple Crown bid in the June 7 Belmont Stakes. A victory would give his broodmare, Better Than Honour, an inconceivable three straight Belmont wins. She also produced 2006 winner Jazil and last year's winning filly, Rags to Riches.

The trend of Japanese horses winning major international races is similar to what has happened in Major League Baseball, where Hideo Nomo broke new ground for Japanese ballplayers when he left the Kintetsu Buffaloes and joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 (though San Francisco Giants reliever Masanori Murakami was actually the first Japanese-born player in the Major Leagues in 1964). Thirty-six Japanese players have followed Nomo to America since 1995.

Trainer Hideyuki Mori was the boldest internationalist among Japanese horse trainers, sending Ski Captain from Japan to the 1995 Kentucky Derby in the first attempt by a Japanese-based runner to win an American Triple Crown race. The Kentucky-bred colt by Storm Bird arrived at Churchill Downs amid great fanfare (and a huge group of Japanese photographers), but he was short on conditioning after having just one prep race earlier in the year in Japan. Ski Captain never threatened in the Derby, finishing 14th behind Thunder Gulch.

Later that year, Mori was at it again, sending Fujiyama Kenzan to Hong Kong for the international races in December. Mori succeeded this time, saddling the 7-year-old turf veteran for a win in the Group 2 Hong Kong Cup, making Fujiyama Kenzan the first horse in the history of Japanese racing to win a graded or group race abroad.

It was a proud moment for Japanese racing fans and for the owners, breeders, and trainers who had made a concerted effort over a period of years to improve the quality of bloodstock and horsemanship in Japan.

Mori wasn't finished with his international conquests. He hit another milestone in 1998 when the Seeking the Gold filly Seeking the Pearl became the first Japan-based runner to capture a Group 1 race in Europe by winning the Prix Maurice de Gheest in France. Two years later, Mori returned to Europe to win the Group 1 July Cup and Prix de l'Abbaye with Agnes World.

Casino Drive's trainer, Kazuo Fujisawa, got his first taste of international racing in the 1970s when he left his native Japan for England and worked in the Gavin Pritchard-Gordon stable in Newmarket. He returned to Japan, laboring as an assistant trainer for 10 years and working with horses such as Symboli Rudolph, the 1984 Japan Triple Crown winner. Symboli Rudolph was sent to the United States in 1986, where he competed in the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita Park but suffered a career-ending tendon injury.

Fujisawa took out his trainer's license in 1987, and within six years was Japan's leading trainer by number of wins. Since 1993, he has won the training title 11 times and has guided three individual runners through Horse of the Year seasons (Taiki Shuttle, 1998; Symboli Kris S., 2002-03; and Zenno Rob Roy, 2004). The 56-year-old horseman is to Japanese racing what Woody Stephens or Charlie Whittingham were to American racing.

California racing fans saw the result of Fujisawa's training skills when Dance in the Mood scored an impressive victory in the 2006 CashCall Invitational Stakes at Hollywood Park, two years after she finished a troubled second in the American Oaks over the same turf course. A decade earlier, Fujisawa sent Taiki Blizzard to the United States for two unsuccessful tries in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing 13th in 1996 and sixth in 1997. His first major international victory came in 1998 when Taiki Shuttle won the Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois in France.

Japanese fans will be watching closely when Edgar Prado takes Casino Drive to the post in the Belmont Stakes. The race will be televised live in Japan early Sunday morning on the JRA's Green Channel (a national racing network), and every major newspaper in Japan will be sending correspondents to New York to cover the race.

A victory by Casino Drive will be big news indeed, and not just because it would keep Big Brown from making history as racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. A win would lay further claim to the outstanding progress made in recent years by Japanese horses and horsemen.

Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992 to 2007. Over the past 25 years he has covered thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries and appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at raypaulick@gmail.com.