Racing, as champion jockey Oisin Murphy knows, is very big in Japan.
“Horse racing has a different level of appeal there. When I won the Japan Cup [on Suave Richard in 2019],” he said last week, “we were driving back from Tokyo and at Shibuya station, it’s the third busiest station in Tokyo, as you walked out of the station there was a big tower block opposite, with a big lit-up image on it of Suave Richard and me crossing the line. Where else would you see that?”
Probably nowhere, in truth. And Murphy can expect to be plastered over skyscrapers the length and breadth of Japan if the five-year-old mare Chrono Genesis, his mount in the 100th running of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, crosses the line in front to become the first Japanese-trained winner of the race.
Japan’s failure to win the Arc – as yet – is not for want of trying. The country’s first runner in the race was Speed Symboli, a 100-1 shot, in 1969, who finished where his price suggested he would, but 30 years on, El Condor Pasa led for much of the way until Montjeu proved too strong in the closing stages.
No one who was there will ever forget Deep Impact’s appearance at Longchamp in 2006. Japan’s superstar racehorse at the time drew tens of thousands of Japanese racing fans to the Bois de Boulogne, where the on-course betting system struggled to cope. “It was the craziest betting race I’ve seen in my life,” the industry veteran Mike Dillon said at the time. “We were laying 5-2 about Deep Impact in London [when] there were people queuing in lines a quarter of a mile long to back him [at Longchamp] when the screen is showing him at 1-10.”
But Deep Impact could finish only third, a setback for Japanese racing which was compounded when he was disqualified a few weeks later, having failed a post-race drugs test. That disappointment, though, was as nothing to the almost tragi-comic failure of Orfevre in 2012. “Look at Orfevre … It’s Orfevre for Japan, they’re going to do it,” the commentator yelled as Christophe Soumillon charged into the lead well inside the final furlong. But they didn’t, as Orfevre faltered in the final strides and allowed Solemia to get a neck up at the line.
So Murphy could salve several decades of national hurt with a victory on Sunday, in what is not only the 100th running of the Arc but also, by general consent, one of the best renewals for many years.
“It’s fascinating to see so many good horses in it this year,” he says. “I’m not knocking the race in recent years, but there was probably never as much strength in depth as there is this year, in quite a long time.
“Tarnawa’s run in the Irish Champion Stakes was massive, [the Derby winner] Adayar is a star in my opinion and the form of [his win in] the King George has worked out well. [The Oaks winner] Snowfall is getting the three-year-old’s [weight] allowance, and Hurricane Lane [the St Leger winner] stays well and we know that they’ll probably ride him pretty positive.
“But all of those horses, I was never going to ride one of them, so to get on one like her is brilliant and a great opportunity for me. She’s the best middle-distance horse in Japan and she’s a pretty easy ride, she jumps well and can put herself on the speed, and she travels, which is key in a race like that.
“Her run in Dubai [when second in a Group One in March] was massive, and [the winner] Mishriff has come out and done brilliant things since. This race has been the aim since Dubai and I’m pleased she’s going straight to the race [without a trial], I personally feel with trials, you can leave your race there.”
Despite winning the jockey’s championship for the past two years – and, in all likelihood, in 2021 as well – Murphy has yet to be associated with a top-class middle-distance performer in Europe.
But his high profile in Japan, after successful stints riding there over the winter in previous years, made Murphy an obvious choice to replace the injured Yuichi Kitamura , and Takashi Saito, Chrono Genesis’s trainer, stepped in to book him as long ago as July.
“I came close in Hong Kong and Dubai to winning more Group Ones for them,” he says, “and it’s something I want to do more and more of. I feel their breed is getting stronger all the time, and they’re buying the best mares from Britain, Ireland, America and everywhere else.
“They don’t turn a blind eye to any Group One anywhere in the world [but] the Arc is one they want to win more than any other and it’s only a matter of time before they do.”
An outside draw in stall 14 will not make Murphy’s life any easier on Sunday, but having been fortunate to walk away from a nasty incident at Salisbury on Thursday with nothing broken, the opportunity to go to post on a fancied runner in the Arc for the first time is the only thing on Murphy’s mind.
“It’s my favourite race of the year although I’ve not often been part of it, and it’s the race I want to win more than any other,” he says.
“In Paris as you approach the autumn, the trees are starting to lose their leaves and it’s a very pretty backdrop. I have 50 friends that are going there not really because I’m riding, but because they want to go. And they’re not really that into racing, but they’re making a weekend of it.
“Certain memories always stick with you as a child and when Dylan Thomas won the Arc [in 2007] and [Kieren] Fallon had the Irish flag draped over his shoulders, obviously I wasn’t there but it made for special television. Then there was Soumillon winning on Zarkava [in 2008], when he threw his helmet into the crowd. Special days …”