11/25/2005 12:00AM

Racing in Japan shows us the money

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NEW YORK - Americans who stayed up until 1:20 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights could get a glimpse of the Japanese racing through TVG's telecasts of the Japan Cup and Japan Cup Dirt. Looking at the past performances for those fields offered an equally intriguing glimpse of a racing culture so awash in money that stateside horse owners might weep.

The 24 Japanese-based horses in the $2 million Japan Cup Dirt and $4 million Japan Cup offer an interesting comparison with the 26 American- and European-based horses that ran the in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf and $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic here last month. While the purses for both pairs of races were roughly equal, the Japanese runners make even the most accomplished of their Western counterparts look like paupers. In the 16-horse Japan Cup Dirt, the American invaders Lava Man ($1,034,706) and Tap Day ($717,187) ranked 13th and 15th in career earnings.

The 24 Japanese runners had won a total of 150 races from 544 career starts, while the 26 Westerners from the Breeders' Cup were a similar 167 for 451, but even that higher batting average didn't help the Cup horses when it comes to earnings. The 24 Japanese horses had earned a total of $77.1 million, as opposed to just $34.9 million for the 26 Turf and Classic runners. That works out to about $141,700 per start in Japan and $77,400 per start in the West.

Of the 24 Japanese-based runners, 23 were already millionaires, the lone exception being a 3-year-old who was just $27,911 short of a million after only 10 career starts. Only 4 of the 13 Breeders' Cup Turf runners were millionaires going into that race. The average career earnings for the 24 Japanese runners stood at $3.2 million, as opposed to $1.3 million for the 26 Turf and Classic runners.

So who are these exotic horses that average over $3 million in career earnings, a mark only two horses on the entire Breeders' Cup card had reached? While their names may be unfamiliar, their pedigrees are not. A surprising 22 of the 24 Japanese-based runners have an American racehorse or sire in their immediate pedigrees, expatriates such as Adjudicating, Brian's Time, and Forty Niner, as well as such old reliables as Deputy Minister, Mr. Prospector, Northern Dancer, and Storm Cat.

The most dominant name is Sunday Silence, sire of an incredible 8 of the 24 runners and the broodmare sire of 2 others. Sunday Silence is also the sire of Deep Impact, the unbeaten winner of this year's Japanese Triple Crown, who is passing this weekend's festivities to await the Arima Kinen (Grand Prix) Dec. 25.

Three of the Japanese entrants came into the weekend's races with over $7 million in career earnings: Zeno Rob Roy, a Sunday Silence 5-year-old with $9.9 million from a career slate of 7 for 18, including last year's Japan Cup; Tap Dance City, a Pleasant Tap 8-year-old who has banked $9.5 million while going 12 for 40; and Time Paradox, a Brian's Time 7-year-old with $7.4 million in the bank after winning 12 of 41 career starts including last year's Japan Cup Dirt.

The past performances of the Japanese horses are littered with starts in races with seven-digit purses. A Japan Cup runner named Lincoln had made 10 straight starts in races worth a million or more, the cheapest being a trio of Grade 2 events worth a piddling million each. His seven Grade 1 starts were in races that all offered between $2.1 and $3.1 million in purse money.

What is the secret of Japanese racing that makes its purses astronomical? Unfortunately, the primary driver is something that can't be replicated in the West: A virtual monopoly on legal gambling, just like racing in the United States used to have. While underground pachinko bars flourish, casino gambling is illegal in Japan, and the competition for horse-racing dollars comes only from minor boat, bicycle, and motorcycle parimutuel racing.

There are, however, aspects of Japanese racing that American operators would be wise to consider: A powerful, centralized racing authority, the Japan Racing Association; a clear and consistent schedule of major races that complement rather than compete with one another; and a coordinated national offtrack betting system with plentiful telephone and Internet account wagering.

The latter point is often lost on Americans who admire the big crowds on big days at JRA tracks and think the industry's success stems from ontrack promotions. In Japan, even slightly more than here, off-course betting is king, outhandling live action by a 10-1 ratio. Last year, ontrack betting for the 288 JRA cards was 265 billion yen but the offtrack handle was 2.6 trillion yen. With 100 yen roughly equivalent to 84 cents, that means that the Japanese bet about $21 billion offtrack alone on 3,452 JRA races - more than the $16 billion total handle on over 50,000 American races last year.