Ascot test run for Japanese missionaries

Sue Montgomery says more than victory is at stake for Air Shakur

That the only two previous challengers from the shores of Nippon in Britain's most prestigious all-aged race were both ignominious failures is no longer an entirely viable statistic. Poor old Speed Symboli, fifth to Park Top in the 1969 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Sirius Symboli, eighth to Petoski 15 years ago, were of an era before racing's global village had started turning Japanese.

That the only two previous challengers from the shores of Nippon in Britain's most prestigious all-aged race were both ignominious failures is no longer an entirely viable statistic. Poor old Speed Symboli, fifth to Park Top in the 1969 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Sirius Symboli, eighth to Petoski 15 years ago, were of an era before racing's global village had started turning Japanese.

Until as recently as two years ago runners from Japan in Europe had been regarded as no more than curiosities. But in 1998 Seeking The Pearl and Taiki Shuttle made the breakthrough in Europe, winning Group One events on successive Sundays at Deauville and last year Agnes World took the Prix de l'Abbaye less than an hour before his compatriot El Condor Pasa took Montjeu to half a length in the Arc.

Agnes World, a sprinter, ensured his place in Turf history 10 days ago when his July Cup victory made him the first Japanese-trained winner in Britain. On Saturday his young stablemate Air Shakur will test the mettle of Europe's best middle-distance horses in the 50th running of Ascot's great summer showpiece.

Against the likes of seasoned performers like Montjeu (if he runs), Kayf Tara and Daliapour, Air Shakur's mission may be impossible. He is just about the best three-year-old in Japan, but it is five years since one of his age, Lammtarra, triumphed in a King George.

There is, however, a hidden agenda here. Air Shakur is not just running for himself, but for the honour and future of an industry. Sure, Seeking The Pearl, Taiki Shuttle, El Condor Pasa and Agnes World all laid down markers for Japanese racing, training and jockeyship, but all four were bred in the United States. Shiva, the only Japanese-foaled Group One winner in Europe to date, is European in all but theaccident of her birth.

But Air Shakur, owned jointly by Teruya Yoshida and Tsunebumi Yoshihara, trained by Hideyuki Mori, ridden by Yukata Take and bred at Shadai Farm in Hokkaido, is Japanese through and through. And his mission, as a representative of the Classic generation, is to test the water for a crack by another from his stable at next year's Derby.

Yoshida, one of the prime movers in leading his country away from its introverted past, has become one of the bloodstock world's leading players with a power base centred at his family's massive Shadai Farm on the northern-most of Japan's three main land masses. The roster of stallions standing there includes the Arc winners Helissio, Carnegie and Tony Bin and the phenomenally successful Sunday Silence, perennial champion in his adopted home and sire of Air Shakur.

The overweening superiority in Japan of the stock of Sunday Silence, winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic 11 years ago, is one factor in the desire to test his offspring on the international stage. "Air Shakur and the King George is very important, " said Masafumi Matsuda, assistant to Mori. "We know that Sunday Silence horses are good and that Air Shakur is one of the best of his generation. This is the first chance to see how good in a country like England, where there is such a history of racing."

Matsuda, 26, has supervised Air Shakur's preparation since his arrival in Newmarket last month. He and Agnes World have been based at Geoff Wragg's Abington Place Stables. According to Matsuda, Air Shakur has blossomed since his arrival. If the tall, light-framed, dark bay colt has a weakness, it may be his temperament, but the wide-open spaces of Newmarket, such a contrast to the Japanese Racing Association's Ritto training centre near Kyoto, have acted as a soporific.

"At home," said Matsuda, who rides his charge daily, "it is a city of horses. There are always journalists with cameras, many horses, with noise and activity. It can be very stressful, particularly for a nervous horse like this one. He was always jumping about and needed two people to control him in the parade ring before a race.

"He felt threatened by other horses close to him and always spent a lot of time on his hind legs, boxing. In the first week here he took up his fighting pose too, if he saw many horses coming towards him. But now he has relaxed. He is a happy horse."

Air Shakur is now content to mooch about the walking grounds for an hour before getting down to work. Yesterday morning, his sleek dark coat set off splendidly by a red bridle and red leg wraps, he slopped down the side of Warren Hill like an old hack, pausing only occasionally to prick his ears and take in the view. He became animated only in the reverse direction, when he attacked the steep incline with a low, slashing purposeful stride.

Afterwards, he was allowed to pick the grass, an unknown treat back home because of the fertiliser put on it, and sighed as if he'd died and gone to heaven. Matsuda let him nibble. "He loves it," he said. "I always have to drag him away."

Matsuda, no stranger to Europe - he has had spells with Clive Brittain, Michael Kauntze and at Corbally Stud - is fairly pragmatic about Air Shakur's chances on Saturday. "He is only three, and a rather unfurnished, inexperienced three," he said. "He will be a much better horse next year. I worry slightly that he will be distracted by the occasion at Ascot and the picnics in the car park, as he sometimes finds it hard to concentrate in a race. But he goes on any ground and can race from the front or the back and the distance is no problem. He will not be a disgrace."

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