11/24/2006 1:00AM

Major-league racing nothing new for Japan


NEW YORK - This past week the International Cataloguing Standards Committee upgraded Japan to a "Part 1 country," thus confirming what anyone with two eyes in his head has known for the last 10 years, namely that horse racing in Japan is as good as in any country in the world.

In fact, it is even better than that. In placing Japan among 15 other nations as Part 1 countries - after decades as a Part 2 country during which its horses won Group 1 races in France (Seeking the Pearl and Taiki Shuttle), England (Agnes World), America (Cesario), and Hong Kong (Jungle Pocket, Stay Gold, Eishin Preston) - the committee would have us believe that Japan is only now on a par with countries like Canada, Italy, and Chile, whose trainees rarely win in foreign climes. In fact, at the Grade 1 level, Japanese racing has been as good as that of Britain, Ireland, France, or the U.S. for years, as evidenced by its six victories in seven Japan Cups from 1998 to 2004.

The reason official recognition was so long in coming for Japan was the restrictive nature of all but a large handful of Japanese black-type races. Most of the Japan Racing Association's graded stakes have always been closed to foreign-trained horses. By next year, however, the JRA will have opened 60 of its 111 graded races to open company. The addition of Japan to the elite group - which now includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - represents the Group 1 triumphs in the past year of Heart's Cry in the Dubai Sheema Classic, Cosmo Bulk in the Singapore Airlines International Cup, and Hat Trick in the Hong Kong Mile. Also, the one-two finish of Delta Blues and Pop Rock in the Melbourne Cup, the third-place finishes of Heart's Cry in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes and Deep Impact in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and the victories of Utopia in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile and Dance in the Mood in the Grade 3 CashCall Mile.

Japan's record of foreign victories in recent years is unmatched in the world if one discounts the many wins chalked up by British, French, and Irish-trained horses in England, Ireland, and France, a region that requires shipping horses shorter distances than that required to get from New York to Chicago or Louisville. But in raising Japan to the highest level of international racing, the Cataloguing Standards Committee opens speculation about the makeup of the international sport in general.

Excluding the United States and Canada, where approximately 70 percent of all graded stakes are run on dirt, about 90 percent of all group or graded races in the other 14 Part 1 countries are run on turf. All of the group races in Europe save for a pair of British Group 3's are run on turf. All of the group races in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and South Africa are run on turf. In Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, the ratio is 50-50 between turf and dirt. Five of the UAE's 14 group races are on turf. In Japan, the JRA runs 98 graded stakes on turf, 13 on dirt.

So, the UAE, the United States and Canada find themselves as the only major racing nations in the world where a majority of black-type events are run on dirt. It must stand to reason that if approximately 80 percent of the world's best Thoroughbred races are run on turf, while nearly 70 percent of America's best races are on dirt, racing in America has succeeded in this global era in having painted itself into a corner. For if 80 percent of the world's officially sanctioned group and graded races are run on turf, then can we not reasonably assume that 80 percent of the horses bred in the 16 leading racing nations are bred with turf racing in mind? If that is the case, it means that owners in these United States are trawling a pool of just 20 percent of the world's best-bred horses to run in the dirt races that make up nearly 70 percent of the best American sport.

The problem of American exceptionalism is further exacerbated by the allowance of race-day medication, something that is taboo in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, and the UAE. When French trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre was asked why his wonderful mare Pride would not be running in the the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, he responded: "We do not run our horses in America." The reader is left to ponder the reasons why.

Racetracks throughout North America are spending millions to replace their traditional dirt tracks with artificial dirt surfaces that are easier on the fragile legs of the contemporary Thoroughbred. If only they would have spent similar amounts on installing additional turf courses, which are even easier on horses and would be more in line with the game as it is exists throughout the world outside of North America.

Lone Star Park missed a big opportunity to start a trend when it opened in 1997. Operating in by far the largest of the 48 contiguous states, couldn't it have found the room to build a Woodbine-style 10-furlong turf course around a second nine-furlong turf course, with the official-sized one-mile dirt track inside of that? Had it done so, Lone Star might have become a magnet for turf stables throughout the country. As it is, they merely built a cookie-cutter one-mile dirt track with the usual bandbox seven-furlong turf course inside of that.

In any event, a warm A-League welcome to Japan. It is an honor long overdue.