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Can Japan finally triomphe in the Arc?

By Matthew Knight, CNN
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Sat October 4, 2014
Close but no cigar as Japanese-bred Orfevre (right) ridden by Christophe Soumillon is pipped at the post by Solemia in the 2012 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Orfevre was Japan's great hope last year too but once again finished second. Can Japan finally land their first Arc in Sunday's race? Close but no cigar as Japanese-bred Orfevre (right) ridden by Christophe Soumillon is pipped at the post by Solemia in the 2012 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Orfevre was Japan's great hope last year too but once again finished second. Can Japan finally land their first Arc in Sunday's race?
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A deep affection
  • A Japanese-trained horse has never won the coveted Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe
  • The world's richest turf race has prize money totaling $6.5 million
  • Japanese horse has finished second in three out of last four races
  • Japan has three horses entered in Sunday's race -- its biggest contingent so far

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(CNN) -- As the starting gates clatter open and the horses charge out under the reins of their riders, a nation will once again hold its breath.

On Sunday, following an hors d'oeuvre of four-wheeled Formula One action at Suzuka, all eyes will turn to the main course in Paris as Japan's four-legged racers try to grab glory for the first time at the 93rd Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

So near, yet so far has been the story of recent times, with Japanese horses finishing second three times in the last four seasons -- Orfevre was the unlucky runner-up in 2012 and 2013, while Nakayama Festa missed out by a whisker in 2010.

But a new year brings renewed hope for Japan's breeders, trainers and racing fanatics, with three horses -- Just A Way, Harp Star and Gold Ship -- lining up to tackle the mile-and-a-half showpiece at Longchamp.

With an increased prize purse of €5 million ($6.5 million), the Arc is now the world's richest turf race.

"All Japanese racing fans are very excited about having three Japanese-trained horses in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- this is the biggest number that we have sent to France," Japanese horse racing journalist and TV presenter Naohiro Goda told CNN.

"I think all three have a very good chance, but if I had to pick one of them I expect Harp Star is the best prospect among them -- she is the first three-year-old filly we have sent to the Arc."

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It's an important point, as four of the last six Arc winners have been fillies -- the French-bred Treve being the latest 12 months ago.

The other two hopefuls' prospects are harder to predict. Five-year-old Gold Ship can be brilliant on his day but is temperamental, while Goda thinks Just A Way may struggle with the distance, despite destroying the field in the Dubai Duty Free at the Meydan Racecourse last March.

"Just A Way is the world's highest-rated horse but a mile and a half is not his trip. We hope he can stay but it's not easy for horses that have never run 2,400 meters (1.5 miles) before," Goda says.

From the Arc-hives

It's not so long ago that people might have laughed at the suggestion of a Japanese horse winning the Arc.

The country's first entrant in 1969, Speed Symboli, finished 11th in a race won by the Irish-trained Levmoss. Further attempts in 1972 by Mejiro Mushahi and Sirius Symboli 14 years later ended with both horses way down the field.

The breakthrough came in 1999 with U.S.-bred El Condor Pasa, which won the Japan Cup the previous year. He carried a sizable lead into the final two furlongs at Longchamp and looked a dead cert to upset favorite Montjeu, but the French thoroughbred refused to give up and sneaked ahead in the dying yards.

That battle may have been lost but it signaled the start of Japanese horses gaining a foothold on the international stage.

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"Before then, the standard of Japanese horses was not so high," Goda explains, while also noting two landmark victories in Grade One Stakes races the previous year.

Taiki Shuttle's win in the Prix Jacques Le Marois followed compatriot Seeking the Pearl's triumph at the Prix Maurice de Gheest -- both run at France's Deauville racecourse.

"It was a breakthrough for Japanese racehorses racing overseas and now the standard of Japanese trained horses is very competitive all over the world," Goda says.

Wins for Delta Blues at the Melbourne Cup in 2006 and Victoire Pisa at the 2011 Dubai World Cup bear testament to this fact -- but also to the dedication of the Yoshida family, which oversees a vast breeding operation on Hokkaido.

Now run by three brothers -- Teruya, Katsumi and Heruya -- its assets include the world-famous Shadai Stallion Station, home to leading sire Deep Impact.

"Without the great support of the Yoshida brothers in the breeding industry, I think it is impossible to contemplate a Japanese horse winning the Arc," Goda says.

Big in Japan

The near misses of recent years have only added to the intrigue, with interest back in Japan reaching fever pitch in recent days.

"There has been huge coverage all week so far," says Goda. "All the newspapers and sports papers are covering it. Many of the major TV and radio stations have been dispatching their correspondents to Chantilly to see how Japanese horses are training.

"On Sunday evening, two television stations are going to have live coverage even though the start time is after midnight and millions of Japanese people are going to watch the race live on TV," he adds.

Goda has seen plenty of Arcs come and go over the years. His first trip to Longchamp was in 1986 -- seen by many as a vintage year for the event, with one of the best fields ever assembled.

His latest sojourn in the French capital could prove equally memorable. It would certainly be a fitting year for Japan to break its duck, he thinks.

"We have three Japanese-trained horses on Sunday, all ridden by Japanese jockeys. Last year, Orfevre was ridden by French jockey Christophe Soumillon," he says.

"The fact we are sending pure Japanese teams (this year) is quite important for Japanese society. We hope to see one of these teams raise the national flag on the center pole on Sunday."

Read more: Why horse racing is 'Big in Japan'

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