Updated on 09/17/2011 11:39PM

It's time Japan let others in

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Heart's Cry wins the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic, more proof of Japan's growing stature in racing.

TOKYO - Less than a decade ago, Japanese horses were almost a laughingstock on the international racing scene. Although they earned gigantic purse money at home, they were routinely trounced when they faced their counterparts from the United States and Europe.

But when the world's richest day of racing was held Saturday in Dubai, drawing horses from all parts of the globe, the tally of winners by other nations: Japan 2, United States 1, England 1. It was yet another manifestation of the dramatic improvement of horses from the Far East.

The Japanese have won major stakes in Europe and important international races in Hong Kong. Their horses have beaten high-class invaders in recent runnings of the lucrative Japan Cup. Americans might have dismissed some of these victories as the result of a home-field advantage. But everybody in the U.S. racing industry took notice last summer when a Japanese filly named Cesario traveled halfway around the world and overpowered America's best female turf runners in the American Oaks at Hollywood Park.

"She was breathtaking in her utter dominance, a tribute to a breeding industry come of age," columnist Jay Hovdey wrote in the Daily Racing Form.

It was the first time a horse bred and trained in Japan had won a Grade 1 stakes in the United States. Just as Japanese companies such as Sony grew with the support of government ministries, the improvement of horses here was guided by the all-powerful Japan Racing Association, which owns tracks, licenses participants, and oversees all aspects of the sport.

The stimulus for change came when the first Japan Cup was run in 1981, and Japan's best horses were beaten by second-tier runners from foreign countries. Recognizing their own Thoroughbreds' shortcomings, "We made a plan to produce horses who could compete against the top foreign horses," said Akinobu Kiguchi, the JRA's deputy general manager for breeding affairs.

That plan included obvious steps: importing better stallions and mares, improving veterinary care, offering more financial incentives to breeders. But it was in fact a single stroke of good fortune that reshaped the sport here.

As the Japanese, armed with a strong yen, began to buy stallion prospects from the United States and Europe, they were regarded as easy marks by the world's horse owners. A breeding expert observed: "Japan has been a place to sell failures, or horses who people think will fail and are unwanted in North America and Europe."

In the late 1980's, the U.S. Thoroughbred market had crashed and great breeding farms had been driven into bankruptcy when the best American racehorse in years appeared on the scene. Thus were the Japanese able to acquire the brilliant Sunday Silence in 1990. It was a transaction comparable to America's postwar importation of Nasrullah, who transformed the breed, siring the prolific Bold Ruler, who in turned sired Secretariat.

Sunday Silence became a phenomenal sire, Japan's leading stallion for 12 consecutive years. Even his death in 2002 did not diminish his influence, with sons of Sunday Silence becoming a dominant force in Japanese breeding. Sunday Silence's best-performing son, Special Week - who earned nearly $10 million in his career - is the sire of Cesario.

By any standard, Japanese racing is a powerhouse. The money bet on races here annually is more than double the sum wagered in the United States. The high level of betting enables Japan to offer purse money that is the envy of the world. Yet outsiders can do little more than envy the Japanese racing scene. For the most part, they can't be part of it. Unlike all other major racing nations, Japan bars participation by foreigners.

In the years when Japanese horses were distinctly inferior, the JRA understandably instituted protectionist policies to keep foreign owners and horses from coming ashore and dominating the game here. Only a few special international races - notably the Japan Cup - were open to invaders. Over the years, the policy has been loosened slightly. As of this year, Kiguchi said, "Foreign-bred horses can compete in 55 percent of the races. Foreign-trained horses can run in 85 stakes races; we are gradually increasing that number. But no outsider can operate a full-fledged racing stable here."

Nor do foreigners operate major breeding farms. The Japanese breeding industry resembles a small private club, with the Yoshida family, which operates Shadai Farm, dominating the business. It owned Sunday Silence and owns most of the top stallions, as well some 3,000 mares.

The exclusionary policies are blatantly unfair. A Japanese owner can campaign a horse in the United States, run him in the Kentucky Derby and win it - as Fusao Sekiguchi did with the colt Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Yet an American owner couldn't do the same and try to win the Japanese Derby. It's a race closed to foreigners.

When I asked Japanese officials to justify these policies, I got a smile in response and no clear answer. When Japan's horses were inferior, there was a justification. But as Japanese horses continue to compete so successfully against the world's best, it is hard to make the old argument that they are weaklings deserving protection from outside competition.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post