Thursday, March 8, 2012

Orfevre: A Horse of Hope

In a year that Japan faced extreme tragedy in the wake of natural disasters, horse racing brought great relief and hope. Fifteen days after the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, three horses brought optimism to Japan due to the results of two races. Two horses brought immediate positivity while the other horse was just beginning his road to building hope in Japan.

The two horses that caused immediate celebration were none other than Victoire Pisa and Transcend, who finished first and second respectively in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (GI). The horse that was on his way to increasing Japan’s optimism didn’t run in the richest horse race in the world that day. Rather, he raced in his home country in the Fuji TV Sho Spring Stakes (GII), finding the winner’s circle for the first time since his debut.

The horse was a three-year-old chestnut colt by the name of Orfevre, which means goldsmith in French. The Spring Stakes set him up for the first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown, the Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) (GI), a month later. Finding his way through traffic, Orfevre struck to the lead in late stretch to capture the 2000-meter race by about three lengths.

Similar to when a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, hopes that Orfevre would capture the Triple Crown soared in Japan. Unlike the American Triple Crown, however, it had been only six years since a horse had won all three legs. Orfevre continued on to the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (GI) a month later with the goal of winning the second jewel of the Triple Crown. In deep stretch, Orfevre showed a breathtaking kick to take the near-twelve-furlong race by two lengths.

Also unlike the American Triple Crown, the dates of the Japanese Triple Crown are much more spread out. The first leg – the Satsuki Sho – is run in April, the second leg – the Tokyo Yushun – is run towards the end of May or early in June, and the final leg - the Kikuka Sho -is run in October. Orfevre took four months off after winning the Tokyo Yushun before winning the Kobe Shimbun Hai as his prep race for the Kikuka Sho.

On October 23, 2011, nearly 70,000 people flocked to Kyoto Racecourse with expectations of witnessing history. Their cheers and applause sounded through the air as the horses loaded into the gate for the start of the race, their eyes riveted by Orfevre. It had been seven months since tragedy had struck Japan; now was their chance to rejoice in the glory of a horse with rare brilliance.

The roar from the crowd gathered at Kyoto was deafening as eighteen three-year-olds leapt from the starting gate. Orfevre found his position in mid-pack, being restrained by Kenichi Ikezoe as the horses began their journey of 3000 meters (about 15 furlongs). The cheers from the crowd never let up. In fact, they only grew louder. The sound of the racing fans was thunderous as the horses swung around the final turn, as Orfevre loomed large on the outside.

As the dazzling chestnut colt flew down the homestretch, the Japanese celebrated loudly as the horse made their dreams reality. Thought it was a year that will always be remembered in Japan due to a great tragedy, it was also a year that will be hailed as one of the greatest in Japanese horse racing history. This was all because Orfevre dominantly galloped down the homestretch before a rejoicing crowd to capture the coveted title of Triple Crown winner.

After capping off 2011 with a victory in the Arima Kinen Grand Prix (GI), Orfevre was voted Japan’s Horse of the Year. Orfevre did not just accomplish more than any other Japanese racehorse in 2011, but he captured the hearts and imagination of racing fans and gave them more hope than any other horse. He was more than deserving of the prestigious title.

Not only did Orfevre give Japan great hope, but he also provides optimism for American racing. Horses that race in Japan are prohibited from racing on medication, unlike horses that compete in the United States. Orfevre achieved his stunning accomplishments without the assistance of any medication.

Nearly every racehorse in America runs on medication, though many feel as if we should halt that method. Orfevre was able to put together a Horse of the Year and Triple Crown-winning campaign without drugs. If horses in other nations can do this, so can horses in the United States. We need to rule out medication.

You have to go back to 1978 to find the most recent American Triple Crown winner. The pedigrees of the most current Triple Crown victors are outdated, as the three most recent champions were born in the 1970s and have since passed away. Perhaps we should look to the pedigrees of horses like Orfevre to discover one of the keys to producing a Triple Crown champion.

Though Orfevre was bred in Japan, he is a grandson of a near-American Triple Crown winner in Sunday Silence, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before falling short to his rival, Easy Goer, in the Belmont Stakes. The last horse that won the Japanese Triple Crown before Orfevre, Deep Impact, was a son of Sunday Silence. Both Orfevre and Deep Impact trace back to Northern Dancer. There is not much of an American flair to either horses’ pedigree, especially considering Sunday Silence stood most of his stud career in Japan. However, Hat Trick and Silent Name – two talented studs of Sunday Silence – are standing in the United States. Yet these two are most well-known as milers.

Orfevre descends from female family number eight, the same family that has produced many distance runners: the winner of the Oaks Stakes (GI, 12F) and the Swettenham Stud Fillies’ Trial Stakes (GI, 10F) in Eswarah, the winner of the Epsom Derby (GI, 12F) and the Dante Stakes (GII, 10F) in Motivator, the 1975 Coaching Club American Oaks (GI, 12F) winner in Ruffian, the 1970 English Triple Crown winner in Nijinsky II, and the 1941 American Triple Crown winner in Whirlaway.

We can gather much hope from Orfevre. Not only did he give Japan faith in a time when they needed it most, but Orfevre has given us the momentum to determine what we need in a durable champion with the potential to become a Triple Crown winner. We have a lot to learn from horses like Orfevre, horses who provide great hope.

As for Orfevre, he is being pointed toward this year’s prestigious Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Should Orfevre continue his winning ways, he could go down in history as one of the greatest Japanese horses to ever set foot on a racetrack. No matter what happens in Orfevre’s future, he has left a lasting impression of hope on the racing world.

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