Orfevre and Kizuna carrying dreams of Japanese fans

Upwards of 6,000 Japanese fans are expected to be in attendance at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, an indication of the hold horse racing has on Japan.

Jockey Yutaka Take and his horse, Kizuna, could well be the sentimental favorites among the thousands of Japanese fans expected to be in attendance at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Remy de la Mauviniere / AP Photo
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If you have ever been to Japan, you may have come across the word “otaku”.

This word effectively underlines the extent to which the Japanese can obsess. It can verge on the pathological.

Think Tamagotchi, the hand-held digital pet; think Hello Kitty, the worldwide cartoon phenomenon. Karaoke hardly needs an explanation.

This monomaniacal following will again be realised in the western corner of Paris on Sunday when upwards of 6,000 travelling Japanese will swarm on Longchamp Racecourse to watch Orfevre and Kizuna represent them in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Last year, Aventino became the 14th Japanese horse to contest and fail in the most valuable European turf race, trailing in 17th of the 18 runners.

Orfevre appeared to have the race sewn up approaching the final furlong but was agonisingly reeled in by Solemia having jinked badly toward the rail.

As an illustration of how much this race means to Japanese racing fans, simply type "Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe 2012" into YouTube and watch the video of 11 people taking in last year's contest in which Orfevre finished the runner-up. To date, over 80,000 people have watched those fans go through the gamut of emotions only sport can deliver in such a short space of time.

One man who intimately understands the pain of those fans is Olivier Peslier, the jockey on Solemia who has ridden in Japan for nearly 15 years.

“I’ve always wanted to win the Arc for the Japanese,” said Peslier, who rides Dubai Sheema Classic third Very Nice Name.

“I told them the best present you can give somebody is to win the Arc and at that moment when Orfevre came to win I took their Arc away from them. They were so angry, I could hear them.”

Orfevre’s defeat crushed a racing nation still coming to terms with the earthquake and resultant tsunami that caused the deaths of more than 18,000 people.

Out of that devastation arose Kizuna, the three-year-old colt named by his owner Shinji Maeda. Kizuna means a tie, or bond, in Japanese. He had hoped his people would unite in their grief.

As it happens, they are uniting behind his runner and his fellow raider in Paris.

France Galop, who run French racing, have been swamped with accreditation requests from journalists. Anybody who was at Meydan Racecourse when Japan won the Dubai World Cup with Victoire Pisa in 2011, or even there in March when Gentildonna failed to beat St Nicholas Abbey in the Sheema Classic, will understand that the Japanese media can be legion.

More than 800 applications have been made, and not all have been accepted. France Galop are braced for the invasion in other areas, as well, printing special programmes in Japanese, setting up information booths staffed with Japanese speakers and even tweeting in the language.

Going by the form book, Orfevre appears to have the better chance.

The five-year-old mount of Christophe Soumillon has had a much better preparation this season, missing out a run in the Takarazuka Kinen, Japan’s middle-distance Grade 1 contest, to be fresher for the race in France.

He was sublime in the Group 2 Prix Foy three weeks ago, beating Very Nice Name by three lengths.

Where Orfevre has Soumillon in the saddle, connections of Kizuna are relying on Yutaka Take, the 17-time champion Japanese jockey. It means Kizuna will shade the popularity stakes, but win or lose, however, at least the Japanese people realise they are obsessed by the Arc.

“Most of the Japanese owners and trainers always think about coming to the Arc de Triomphe,” said Keita Tanaka, racing manager for Maeda. “I do not see any other examples in the horse world of one country having such a great passion of winning big races in other countries.”