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Belmont welcomes the people's horse--at least in Japan

Ron Flatter
VSiN.com

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Call Epicharis the Green Bay Packers of horse racing.

LAS VEGAS--You might say that one horse coming into next Saturday’s Belmont Stakes is the Green Bay Packers of thoroughbred racing.

It is not that Epicharis has won 13 championships or anything like that. This is strictly business--as in the business model for a horse that figures to be one of the top betting choices for the finale of the 2017 Triple Crown.

Just arrived Thursday at Belmont Park from a 24-hour journey, Epicharis is based in Japan, where each of his owners paid about $800 a share to have a piece of this horse since he was a yearling.

Since hitting the track for the first time last August, Epicharis has earned $920,285. After trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara and jockey Christophe Lemaire got their 10 percent apiece, and after other expenses were paid, that has left a modest return of $1,200 per share.

“Even though our model is ‘low risk, low return,’ it allows all types of people a chance to enjoy being a racehorse owner,” said Nijiya Takahashi, the longtime chairman of U Carrot Farm, the name of the group that owns Epicharis. “This system can not only promote racing popularity but hopefully an increase in actual horse ownership by engaging the public and allowing them to learn more about the joys of racing horses.”

Consider that a mission well accomplished.

Whether it is grassroots ownership of horses or the very personal connection that trainers and jockeys routinely make with the average fan, there is a uniquely rabid and loyal following for racing in Japan. There is no duplicate for the loud passion shown by the masses of fans who show up for big events like last weekend. More than 120,000 people roared for the Tokyo Yūshun--the Japanese Derby--which was won by U Carrot Farm’s Rey De Oro.

“That’s the beauty of it; it’s such a wide range of people,” said Kate Hunter, who moved from Nashville to Japan where she promotes and markets horse racing. “It’s older. It’s younger. It’s men and women. It’s not just some guy owning a bank. These are people who will get an account with a company like U Carrot and buy a share or two of horses that they like. They’re kept in the loop about that horse with training information and photos of wins. They may even get their names drawn out of a hat to be in the winner’s circle.”

The only requirement for ownership is to have a bank account in Japan--and just a small amount of money. In the case of Epicharis, one share cost the same as a new iPhone.

“We set prices so that anyone can afford to be a part of racing regardless of salary,” Takahashi said in an email response to questions translated by Hunter. “They get to enjoy the charm of racing. We hope it does contribute to the popularity of the sport.”

Could the same thing happen in America? Cot Campbell, whose Dogwood Stable owned 2013 Belmont winner Palace Malice, had that sort of idea when he pioneered limited-partner racing syndicates more than 40 years ago. Barry Irwin’s Team Valor, which owned 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, limits partners to no more than a 10 percent share of any one horse. The Illinois-based Dare To Dream Stable sells partnerships for as little as $1,500 but has not reached the heights of Dogwood and Team Valor.

None of the American syndicates, though, has been able to harvest the high level of passion seen in overseas. Then again, ownership in Japan has limited privileges. The partnership clubs are strictly regulated by the Japanese government, and investors are not celebrities by any means. You will not see 400 names in the program, and shareholders do not have a voice in the day-to-day management of their horses. In that respect it is just like the Green Bay Packers.

But don’t mistake these investors for silent partners.

Even watching on television in the middle of the night on the other side of the world it hard not to get chills from the fanfare that precedes a big race in Japan, where the crowds may be more loudly focused on the actual competition than anywhere in the world.

An amateur video that made the rounds on the internet last weekend showed hundreds of early arrivals to the Nakayama Racecourse for the Tokyo Yūshun charging through the just-opened gates to claim the best vantage points for the day for their 200-yen ($1.81) general-admission ticket.

“They call that Race Zero,” Hunter said. “I’ve done that run before. When the guard opens the gates you just haul ass.”

Is this all a product of being a shareholder in ownership clubs? Or did the passion for the sport come first? In Japan that may as well be horse racing’s version of the chicken and the egg.

“I don’t know that clubs had to do with it,” she said. “There has always been a passion for horse racing here. It will be interesting to see how many Japanese fans show up in New York. I do know that (the New York Racing Association) is looking for Japanese speakers to help with betting on the track.”

Epicharis is not blazing a trail to New York. It was just last year when UAE Derby winner Lani, owned more traditionally by a pair stable operators in Japan, raced in all three Triple Crown races. His tour of America peaked with a third-place finish in the Belmont.

The front-running Epicharis comes to New York more rested after setting the pace and finishing second in the UAE Derby in late March. He may wind up the second or third betting choice behind Preakness runner-up Classic Empire, the likely favorite.

“He is a horse that always breaks well and is able to maintain a good pace,” Takahashi said. “If he is on the pace as usual in the Belmont it won’t be an issue if he gets his run of the race. We have not decided how we will position him yet. It will depend on his post position.”

Whether they are in New York or back home, Japanese bettors will get the opportunity to gamble on Epicharis--or against him--in the Belmont. It is one of about two dozen foreign races approved for wagering in Japan, all because there is a horse coming in from there.

“The Japan Racing Association will have its own pool and it will take about 5-10 percent,” Hunter said. “Billions of yen are bet on these races. Just in the past year the number of people registered for internet-only betting has nearly doubled. The turnover should be a lot higher on (the Belmont). They want to support their horse and their country.”

And for all those owners of Epicharis, an $800,000 first prize would amount to about $1,200 a share, about double what they have already made back on their initial $800 investment. In essence the payoff over the last 10 months could be about 2-1.

“These fans get to be a part of owning a horse and enjoying the ride without having to take the reins,” Hunter said. “If you just want to be a part of it it’s kind of perfect--especially for your novice horseplayer.”

Twelve may race in the Belmont Stakes

Epicharis is one of three new shooters to the Triple Crown that may take their place in the Belmont alongside Classic Empire and eight other horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby and/or the Preakness Stakes.

Second in last month’s Grade 3 Peter Pan at Belmont Park, maiden winner Meantime figures to provide early speed with Epicharis, especially now that failed Preakness pace-setter Conquest Mo Money has been pointed toward another race.

Twisted Tom comes in with no graded-stakes experience but with wins at Laurel Park in Maryland in a pair of $100,000 spring stakes.

Withers Stakes runner-up True Timber became the latest defection after he spiked a fever Thursday, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

Following is the possible field for the Belmont according to the New York Racing Association, including each horse’s most recent race and result (all probable except where noted):

Classic Empire--2nd, Preakness

Epicharis--2nd, UAE Derby

Gormley--9th, Kentucky Derby (possible)

Irish War Cry--10th, Kentucky Derby (possible)

J Boys Echo--15th, Kentucky Derby

Lookin At Lee--4th, Preakness

Meantime--2nd, Peter Pan

Multiplier--6th, Preakness

Patch--14th, Kentucky Derby (possible)

Senior Investment--3rd, Preakness

Tapwrit--6th, Kentucky Derby

Twisted Tom--1st, Federico Tesio

Heart To Heart is in wide-open Shoemaker

Eight-time graded-stakes winner Heart To Heart is an uncertain, 5-2 favorite on the morning line for Saturday’s $400,000 Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile on the turf at Santa Anita Park. The field of seven horses also includes Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap winner Bal A Bali (3-1), Kilroe runner-up What A View (3-1), two-time Arcadia Stakes victor Bolo (4-1) and 8-year-old Thunder Road winner Farhaan (4-1).

Also at Santa Anita four-time Grade 1 winner Stellar Wind is the 3-5 morning-line favorite Saturday against four other fillies and mares in the $400,000 Beholder Mile. It will be her first race since she won the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park nearly two months ago. Víctor Espinoza gets the ride for trainer John Sadler on the 5-year-old sired by Curlin.

Post time for the Beholder Mile is 7:37 p.m., preceded at 7:05 p.m. by the Shoemaker Mile.

Cliffs, Cracksman are Derby choices in UK

Cliffs Of Moher (4-1) and Cracksman (9-2) are the shortest-priced horses in the field of 19 on Saturday for the 238th running of the $1.9 million Group 1 Investec Derby at Epsom, England.

One of six Derby horses trained by Aidan O’Brien, Cliffs Of Moher is coming off a $55,000 stakes victory as an odds-on favorite last month at Chester near Liverpool. Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Cracksman has won both his races for trainer John Gosden, including the Derby Trial in late April at Epsom.

After a rainy Friday the weather is forecast to be dry at Epsom on Saturday with the Derby set to start at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

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