Desperate for something to lift their spirits, the Japanese may have found it with Victoire Pisa.
The 4-year-old Japanese horse stormed to an upset win in the $10 million Dubai World Cup Saturday, overtaking Transcend also from the island nation to win the world's richest horse race. It was first time a Japanese horse had won the prestigious race and the 1-2 finish offered a rare bit of good news in a country that is still reeling from a March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The surprise win over favorites Twice Over, Cape Blanco of England and Gio Ponti of the United States prompted an emotional scene as supporters of Victoire Pisa broke down during the playing of the national anthem. The horse's trainer Katsuhiko Sumii said he hoped the victory would inspire his fellow citizens, who face the monumental task of rebuilding their communities.
"Knowing there are horses and people affected by the tsunami or lost their lives, I knew there may be something I could do to give back with a win or by performing well in this race," Sumii said, as supporters sipped champagne and watched reruns of the race. "That is something I strongly feel.
"This victory won't change people's lives but I do hope that in some way I will give back to the horse riding and horse racing community in Japan."
From the moment they arrived at Meydan Racecourse, Victoire Pisa and the two other Japanese horses entered in the big race came to serve as potent reminders of the twin disasters that has left more than 10,400 dead and more than 17,000 listed as missing.
On racing day, Japan was still struggling to contain a disaster at one of its nuclear power plants and fears were rising over the safety of food and water after radiation has been discovered in milk, seawater and a range of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips.
And the horsemen were not immune from the calamity. While all the horses were shipped before the quake, trainers of several horses, including Victoire Pisa, talked of stables left in shambles by the tsunami. Many of the Japanese teams wore black polo shirts with the word "hope" on the sleeve alongside Japan's flag and the date of the double-disaster on the back.
Even the Italian jockey for Victoire Pisa Mirco Demuro used his victory celebration to remember the disaster.
"It's unbelievable," Demuro said. "It's just unbelievable to win the Dubai World Cup for Japan."
Things didn't start well for Victoire Pisa. It fell off the pace after bumping its head on the starting gate.
Instead, it was the lesser-known of the trio, Transcend, who stormed out and held the lead for much of the race, with Irish Derby winner Cape Blanco and longshot Monterosso coming on. On the home straight, Victoire Pisa went wide and broke from the pack to beat Transcend by half a length. Monterosso was third.
"My horse usually has a good start, but this time he hit his head in the stall and we had a bad start," said Demuro, whose horse won the race in a time of 2:05:94.
"But maybe it was lucky because there was a slow pace on the backstretch, so I could find a good position close to the leader," he said. "It was a really tight finish. We always believe in him. He's won his last race very easy giving two kilos away. He's a very nice horse. We were hoping to do well, but to win is amazing."
Demuro, whose success has mostly come in Japan with victories in the Japan Derby and Japan Cup, said this was "his biggest" win yet and hoped it would raise his profile.
"I can explain to the people I am a good jockey. I always try to do my best," he said. "But when you stay in Italy, it's not easy to go around in the world."
The victory was an upset of sorts for Victoire Pisa, with bookmakers favoring Twice Over of England at 3-1, followed by Cape Blanco at 7-2 and Poet's Voice at 9-1, with the Japanese horse next at 10-1. But only Cape Blanco challenged for the lead and finished fourth.
Twice Over — trained by 10-time champion Henry Cecil — had another disappointing race, coming out slowly from a bad draw to finish ninth a year after coming in 10th. Cecil, who has won all over the world, has never had a victory in the Dubai World Cup.
Three-time Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti came in fifth while Poet's Voice finished dead last.
The Dubai World Cup was the highlight of the eight-race card that featured 110 horses racing for $26.25 million.
In the earlier races, Godolphin stables, owned by Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, showed again why it's a force.
Three of his horses won, led by Rewilding which blew away the field in the $5 million Sheema Classic. The horse ridden by Lanfranco Dettori came from behind, passing Rulership of Japan and then outrunning the field with 250 meters to go to beat the Saudi-owned Redwood by three-and-a-quarter lengths.
A second victory for Godolphin came in the $2 million UAE Derby, in which Khawlah barely edged Master of Hounds. A third came in the $1 million Godolphin Mile won by Skysurfers.
In the other Group 1 races, Presvis came from the back of the pack to win the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, edging out River Jetez and Wigmore Hall. Rocket Man, meanwhile, stormed to victory in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen, a year after being upset by Kinsale King in the same race.
Kinsale King pulled out just before the race, after suffering swelling in his legs and rashes on his face and body.