On Sunday it will be breakfast at Belmont for millions of racing fans in The Land of the Rising Sun. At approximately 7:37 a.m. local time, Yoji Funayama will call Saturday’s Belmont Stakes on site for the Green Channel, Japan’s simulcasting network. He’ll chronicle every stride of Epicharis, his homeland’s hope to win its first American classic.
Besides the Green Channel’s five-person crew, nine reporters and photographers are making the 6,700-mile trip to Belmont Park. Japanese media followed baseball stars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui throughout their careers in the States, and this Japanese-bred colt will get the same treatment.
Since Thursday, Epicharis has stayed at the quarantine barn within sight of Hempstead Turnpike. After clearing quarantine, he stretched his legs Saturday morning. “It was just to check how he is since arriving from Japan,” trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said through interpreter Soshi Inoue. “It looked like he was OK.”
When asked about the Belmont, Hagiwara said, “Secretariat.” No horse could approach Big Red’s 31-length runaway in 1973, but Hagiwara thinks Epicharis could make his own kind of history. “He knows about the other horses in the race, but he’s not sure about the race,” Inoue said. “He’s here to win the race.”
If he does, he’ll earn a $1-million bonus. The NYRA offered U. Carrot Farm that gold carrot to lure horses from Japan and to tap into its massive betting handle. NYRA executive Martin Panza told Newsday, “There is a financial side to it. What we get is pretty much along the lines of the international simulcasting rate.”
The bonus wouldn’t come out of NYRA’s pocket. “The insurance premium is nowhere close to a million,” Panza said.
It’s the second consecutive year a Japan-based colt is in the Belmont, but it’s the first one open to Japanese bettors. Lani ran in all three Triple Crown events and gave by far his best performance in Elmont. He ran third, 1½ lengths behind Creator, who nosed out Destin.
Unlike the cantankerous Lani, Epicharis is a solid citizen. He’s a nose shy of being 5-for-5, losing to Thunder Snow March 25 in the United Emirates Derby.
Unlike many of his opponents, Epicharis’ pedigree suggests he will stay 1½ miles. His sire, Gold Allure, is a son of 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence, and his female line includes ancestors who won the 1½-mile Arc de Triomphe.
There are caveats. Besides his 24-hour trek via Alaska and Chicago, Epicharis’ 11-week layoff is a concern. Although he’s won after a 110-day break, he’s challenging history. “Fresh horses win the Belmont” has become a mantra because 11 of the last 16 winners had at least four weeks off, but 11 is unheard of. Ireland’s Go and Go won the 1990 Belmont. Records before 1950 are sketchy, but he may be the only overseas horse to do it.
Those obstacles haven’t kept bovada.lv from making Epicharis its 5-1 co-second choice (with Lookin at Lee) behind 2-1 Classic Empire. Besides being the sentimental favorite, Epicharis will be the betting favorite in Japan, whose pool will not be commingled with Belmont’s.
“This horse has a pretty big following there,” Panza said. “He’s 4-for-4 in Japan, and a much bigger story there than Lani was. We’re very pleased to have him. With no Triple Crown and no Derby or Preakness winner, this Belmont may be a bit off by American standards. But five million people will be watching in Japan, which will be a huge boost for us.”
Probable field. Thirteen horses are expected to be entered Wednesday for the race. The probable field: Classic Empire, Epicharis, Gormley, Lookin At Lee, Hollywood Handsome, Irish War Cry, J Boys Echo, Meantime, Multiplier, Patch, Senior Investment, Tapwrit and Twisted Tom.