Such is the progress made by one of the youngest racing nations that it now numbers two horses ranked in the top eight in the world. One, Deep Impact, is heading for Paris in October and a crack at the Arc. The other, Heart's Cry, will step on to Newmarket Heath this morning ahead of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on Saturday week. The sport had better get used to turning Japanese.
Japan's racing history is a brief one compared to the countries with which she now competes. From its beginnings in the 1860s there was little stability until the 1930s, when its equivalent to British Classics were established. After the war the importation of the Irish Derby winner Hindostan had a significant effect on the breeding industry but the occasional enterprising venture abroad in the 1960s showed Japanese competitors were not up to scratch.
As recently as eight years ago runners from Japan in Europe had been regarded as no more than curiosities, given the rarity of such ventures, the then closed-door policy of the country's racing and lack of success abroad, despite massive investment in breeding stock.
The breakthough came thanks to top-level victories from Seeking The Pearl, Taiki Shuttle, Agnes World and El Condor Pasa. But it was a door that opened, not a floodgate. The Japanese programme is so well-endowed that foreign fields, in these parts at least, are not exactly profitable to conquer.
Even before he burst on the international scene with his stunning £1.7m success in the Dubai Sheema Classic at Nad Al Sheba in March, Heart's Cry had earned the best part of £3m in 16 domestic runs that yielded four victories.
His presence in the field at Ascot will be for solely altruistic reasons. "It is the dream of every Japanese horseman to come to Ascot for the King George," said the five-year-old's trainer, Kojiro Hashiguchi, yesterday. "We will be racing for honour and pride, the pride of Japan and of our horse."
After a 23-hour journey from the Ritto training centre, not far from Kyoto, to his temporary quarters at Luca Cumani's Bedford House yard, Heart's Cry had every right to become a little edgy. Yesterday he stamped and swished as hands-on Hashiguchi, 60, smoothed his dark coat, oiled his hooves and placated his star with carrots.
"He is starting to settle, so I am not worried," said the trainer through his assistant and excellent interpreter Toshi Kiyota. "He was like this when he arrived in Dubai. He looks a little light, too, after travelling, but he is the sort of horse who travels well and acclimatises. He has the temperament to take everything in his stride."
As a three-year-old, Heart's Cry was smart - he was second in his local Derby - but not a superstar. But he is definitely on an upward curve now. "In his last four runs he has begun to realise his potential," said Hashiguchi. "He always had that, even at three, but it has taken him time to mature. When I took him to Dubai I thought he would run very well. The win was not a surprise, but the ease of it was."
Under a splendid front-running steer from Christophe Lemaire, Heart's Cry ran right away from Collier Hill, with Ouija Board and Alexander Goldrun behind. Lemaire will be in the saddle at Ascot; until then he is in the hands of regular workrider Yuichi Kamata, one of a travelling team of seven.
Heart's Cry will be the fourth Japanese runner in Ascot's summer showpiece, after Speed Symboli (5th at 25-1 in 1969), Sirius Symboli (8th at 100-1 in 1985) and Air Shakur, fifth at 10-1 in 2000.
And he has a point to prove, not just about the Japanese industry. Back in December he became the man who killed Bambi, committing the unpardonable sin of becoming the only horse to beat the great public favourite Deep Impact. He did it fair and square, too, giving him 4lb and a half-length beating over 12 furlongs in a valuable all-aged Group One contest at Nakayama, but is still rated 123 to Deep Impact's 125 by the international handicappers.
It was like Liverpool winning at Old Trafford, and the horses' fan clubs are split. "A lot of people believe Deep Impact is the stronger horse despite that win," said Hashiguchi, smiling. "Our circle believes differently."
Heart's Cry has a domestic autumn programme planned; having been beaten a nose by Alkaased in last year's Japan Cup, he has unfinished business there. "It would be good to win at Ascot," said Hashiguchi, "then we can let Deep Impact win the Arc."
Nap: Xaluna Bay
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