06/08/2017 1:50PM

A bonus for Epicharis, bettors, and Belmont Park

Barbara D. Livingston
U. Carrot Farm is eligible for a $1 million bonus if Japan-based Epicharis wins the Belmont Stakes.

Eighteen months ago, officials at the New York Racing Association, the operator of Belmont Park and two other state racetracks, put in motion a plan to lure more horses from Japan to New York.

On Saturday, that relatively ambitious and somewhat costly plan, aided by some fortunate timing, may pay off if the Japanese horse Epicharis – who was treated for a mild case of lameness on Wednesday night – runs in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.

If Epicharis starts, it will be the second straight year that a Japan-based horse has run in the Belmont. However, a run by Epicharis will hold far more potential reward for both the horse’s connections and for NYRA than the start last year by the Japan-based Lani, a Kentucky-bred who finished third in the Belmont after running ninth in the Derby and fifth in the Preakness.

U. Carrot Farm, the syndicate that owns Epicharis, will be eligible for a $1 million bonus available to any Japan-based horse who wins the Belmont, an incentive put in place early in 2017 by NYRA to capitalize on a decision last year by Japanese racing authorities to crack open their historically closed betting market to imported simulcasts. With Epicharis on the grounds of Belmont late last week, Japanese authorities gave the go-ahead to offer the Belmont to their country’s horseplayers, with NYRA receiving a piece of what is expected to be lucrative betting action (if Epicharis does not start, the race will not be offered in Japan).

It could be a rare win-win. An insurance policy purchased by NYRA will cover the $1 million bonus should Epicharis win, while the revenue from the betting by the Japanese should easily cover the cost of the policy.

“The fact that they can bet on the race is certainly very attractive, but at the same time, we also want to bring some of the best horses in the world here to race,” said Martin Panza, NYRA’s senior vice president of racing. “Even if it wasn’t for the gambling, we would do this regardless.”

David O’Rourke, NYRA’s chief revenue officer, said the association is estimating that Japanese horseplayers will bet $10 million to $20 million on the Belmont if the race is offered in Japan this year. Last year, Japan’s horseplayers bet $40 million on the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France and $7.5 million on the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, held at Santa Anita in November. Both included Japanese runners.

While O’Rourke would not disclose the rate that NYRA will receive on the simulcast, he said the fee was non-negotiable, set by the Japanese racing authorities. Triple Crown simulcast rates for domestic sites are usually 10 percent of handle, but it is unlikely that Japan authorized such a high rate for its imports, given that racetracks around the world are scrambling to get one of the 24 approvals available from Japan to gain access to the country’s betting-mad horseplayers. Instead, the rate is believed to be somewhere near 3 percent.

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Unfortunately for North American bettors, Japan’s wagers will not be commingled in the domestic pools, so anyone hoping to capitalize on any inefficiencies caused by a Japanese flood of money on Epicharis in the straight and exotic pools needs to plan on a more conventional strategy. Japan prefers to create separate pools for imported races in order to offer its players familiar bet types and formats at sanctioned takeout rates.

For Panza, the presence of Epicharis is the reward for enlisting the help of a Japanese agent, Nobutaka Tada, to spread the word among the country’s horsemen about NYRA’s desire for Japanese shippers, laying the groundwork for a four-day trip Panza took to the country in February to meet with the owners and trainers of the country’s leading 3-year-olds.

Panza’s trip coincided with the running of the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Race Course, a race that Churchill Downs had designated as one of two races allowing Japanese horse to earn points toward an automatic berth in the Kentucky Derby. Churchill announced the designations last fall as part of its own plan to lure a Japanese horse and get the Derby in front of Japanese bettors. The import restrictions require that a Japanese horse run in the race for approval.

Panza met with all of the trainers and owners with a horse in the Hyacinth, including Nijiya Takahashi, the president of U. Carrot Farm. It helped that Panza had earlier hustled horses from Japan during his days at the director of racing at Hollywood Park from 1994-2013.

“I already knew him a little, and that certainly made things a lot easier,” Panza said.

As for the insurance policy, Panza said it required a “little creativity” to get the underwriter’s approval, but now that the policy has the potential to pay off in only its first year, NYRA expects to seek out other policies tied to top races at NYRA tracks, at least those that would fit the criteria required under Japan’s import restrictions, such as a Grade 1 rating.

If Epicharis runs, the Belmont will be broadcast live at 7:30 a.m. local time in Japan on the Green Channel, a horse-racing broadcast station. The channel’s analyst, Naohiro Goda, will provide live coverage from Belmont, and a Japanese race-caller who also made the trip to New York, Yoji Funayama, will call the Belmont in Japanese for the channel’s viewers, according to NYRA.

While the early-morning local post time is not ideal, the Filly and Mare Turf last year went off at 4:45 a.m. in Japan, and it still drew nearly $8 million in bets.

“That’s why they want a Japanese horse in any race they approve,” O’Rourke said in reference to the Japanese racing authorities in charge of granting approvals for simulcast imports. “If it’s going to be early in the morning, they better have something to be excited about.”