04/09/2004 12:00AM

Racing a rising sun throughout Japan


NEW YORK - "Godzilla returns" trumpeted the American sporting press as Hideki Matsui made a glorious re-entry into the hearts of his faithful Japanese followers last week when the New York Yankees took the field at the Tokyo Dome. Many stateside scribes blithely declared the Yankee leftfielder to be the most popular athlete in Japan, and indeed, he is on the verge of becoming a national treasure in the Land of the Rising Sun.

But probably none of those baseball writers has ever heard of Yutaka Take.

Like Matsui, Take - Japan's leading jockey - has matinee idol status wherever he goes, be it Tokyo Racecourse or a shopping mall opening in Kyoto. Take, you see, is the most successful product of the Japan Racing Association's long-term program to bring horseracing to the people.

The JRA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, during which it will present itself, and its millions of fans, with a well-deserved series of celebrations. Racing in Japan is robust in spite of a stagnant economy which has contributed to lower average attendance at JRA's 288 annual meetings, down to about 30,000 from a peak of 49,000 in 1995. Daily total handle of $28.8 billion per year on JRA races, while down 20 percent from its 1990 high point, is still nearly twice the handle generated in the United States.

Add the $5.7 billion in handle generated by the National Association of Racing ,which operates primarily at small tracks during the week, and one gets a clear picture of the health of racing in Japan.

As part of its Golden Jubilee festivities, the JRA will run a special race each weekend at tracks such as Tokyo, Nakayama, Kyoto, and Hanshin. Each race will be named after a notable Japanese horse, and they will not be lacking for famous names.

One is El Condor Pasa, who after winning the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in 1999 nearly beat Montjeu in the Arc. Others are Seeking the Pearl and Taiki Shuttle, whose respective victories in the Prix Maurice de Gheest and Prix Jacques le Marois in 1998 made them the first Japanese-trained Group 1 winners in Europe.

Then there is Agnes Digital, Eishin Preston, and Stay Gold, who won three of the four Hong Kong International Races in 2000. And T.M. Opera O, whose bankroll of $16,200,345 makes him the leading earner in racing history.

Compared to America, and especially compared to Britain, Japanese racing is awash in money, so much so that the JRA saw fit to renovate the already perfectly suitable grandstand at its flagship track in Tokyo last year. Its six levels now extend nearly the length of its 2 1/2-furlong stretch, providing its high-rolling fans with a little more leg room.

One historical criticism of Japanese racing, that it discourages the participation of foreign-bred horses, is eroding. JRA officials understand that they operate in an international market, so as the quality of their homegrown product improves, they are opening the gates, however slowly.

Two foreign-bred horses were allowed in the Japanese Derby for the first time in 2001. On Sunday, Hanshin Racecourse will be the scene of the $1.9 million Oka Sho, or Japanese 1000 Guineas, which for the first time will have two spots reserved for foreign-bred fillies. They have been filled by a pair of Kentucky-breds, Maltese Heat and Wedding Valley.

Bred by Omar Trevino, Dr. William Rood, and Gaines-Gentry Thoroughbreds, Maltese Heat is in with a chance. By Old Trieste, she was second in the Grade 2 Hochi Hai Fillies Revue on March 14, but the winner of that race, Move on Sunday, is a Shadai Farm product who will rate among the favorites, along with stablemate Dance in the Mood, the Group 3 Flower Cup winner who will be ridden by Take. Yamanin Sucre and Yamanin Alcyon will also figure prominently.

After finishing first and second in the Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies on Dec. 7, those two were awarded first and second place on Japan's 2003 2-year-old filly classification. It is interesting to note that the first eight fillies on that list will go in the Oka Sho.

It is also of note that eight of the 18 runners in Sunday's big race are daughters of the late Sunday Silence. The Japanese breeding industry will need a replacement for him soon, but may have found one in either Falbrav or Alamshar, both of whom have taken up stud duties in Hokkaido.

The JRA's 50th anniversary celebrations will culminate on Nov. 28, when for the first time both the Japan Cup and the Japan Cup Dirt will be run on the same day. If you can't be there for the fun, you might want to celebrate another Japanese 50th anniversary with the real Godzilla.

The big fella made his splashy screen debut half a century ago, in 1954, when he and the JRA were both just toddlers. The famous film is being re-released in America on May 7 in its original Japanese version with 40 minutes of footage never before seen here.

So take a back seat, Matsui and Take. It turns out that neither of you is the biggest thing that's ever hit Tokyo.