Happy Grin’s following has a widening reach in Japan and trainer Junji Tanaka is hopeful his star galloper will do the nation proud in Sunday’s (26 May) Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup (2400m).
“A lot of people are involved in this project; I want to make them happy from the race on Sunday,” Tanaka said at Sha Tin this morning (Thursday, 23 May).
Happy Grin is the ‘international’ interest in Sunday’s contest, with the raider’s connections keen to take up the Hong Kong challenge despite the cost of travelling a horse overseas.
“This is not a 100 percent invitational race, so it is a big spend for the owner to travel here and look after all the costs,” Tanaka explained.
“The National Association of Racing (NAR) gave us a subsidy of five million Japanese Yen, but it doesn’t cover everything.”
Tanaka revealed that fund-raising for the Lohengrin chestnut’s expedition is “still going on, but at this moment it stands at two million Japanese Yen.”
While horses from the JRA (Japan Racing Association) are regular competitors – and winners – in Hong Kong’s majors, Happy Grin is set to become only the second horse from the local authority-run NAR circuit to compete at Sha Tin. The first was Cosmo Bulk, 10th in the 2005 Group 1 Champions Mile.
The JRA is the nation’s top tier of racing, conducting meetings at weekends, and the NAR covers the midweek fixtures, which is where Happy Grin’s career began.
A 2018 Japan Cup seventh behind Almond Eye put the four-year-old on the map and his loyal fans have been eager to see him test his mettle abroad.
“Because of the characteristics of this horse, being an NAR horse and coming from the JRA’s big races like the Japan Cup, he has a lot of followers and the followers are willing to support his big task, many people were willing to give a kind of donation,” the handler said.
“We have two racing organisations in Japan; one is obviously the Japan Racing Association. The other one is the National Association of Racing which Happy Grin belongs to and there are many restrictions for horses who belong to the NAR to run in JRA races on the turf, particularly for horses over four years old, so this is one of the major reasons why we chose to come here to Hong Kong to run in the Champions & Chater Cup,” Tanaka said.
That lack of suitable races has given Happy Grin the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Win Bright, who captured international success at Sha Tin for Japan in the QEII Cup last month.
Crowned 2018 NAR Best Turf horse, Happy Grin finished eighth to Win Bright in the Group 2 Nakayama Kinen (1800m) earlier this year.
“It was not a good race for Happy Grin, but if he runs well I think he will be competitive against Win Bright. I understand the level of Group 1 races is very high but still Happy Grin can be competitive,” Tanaka said.
The five-time winner has had only two races beyond 2000m, his latest in the Group 2 Nikkei Sho (2500m) when fourth behind Meisho Tekkon.
Tanaka has trained for 13 years, based on the northern island of Hokkaido, a hub for stud farms in Japan and home to the NAR’s Monbetsu Racecourse.
“It’s a cold place so we are not doing racing in the winter time, racing only goes for seven months and we particularly concentrate on two-year-old racing, because of the proximity to the breeding and pre-training facilities. Many two-year-old horses have their first run at Monbetsu racecourse,” Tanaka said.
“The horses are then sent to other racetracks, like the JRA or another part of NAR racing; this is the characteristic of Monbetsu racetrack.”
Happy Grin’s last four races, have seen him make the 2,500km round-trip to compete at two of the nation’s major racetracks, Tokyo and Nakayama.
“He has travelled on many occasions, even when racing in Japan, but this is the first occasion for him to go overseas,” the handler said.
“The first one or two days he arrived he was a bit nervous in the surroundings, but day by day he has got used to the environment; he is eating well and his condition is going up,” the handler added.
His regular rider Takafumi Hattori echoed the trainers’ view of the horse’s improving condition ahead of Sunday’s contest.
“I’m confident with his condition, it is quite good,” the 43-year-old rider said.
Hattori obtained his NAR jockey licence in 1994 and has since amassed 1,711 wins, but the opportunity to travel overseas with a horse has eluded the Hokkaido-based rider, until now.
“First time for me, I feel it is more enjoyable than stressful,” he said.
Happy Grin will break from stall nine in Sunday’s feature against dual Group 1-winner Exultant, as well as Glorious Forever, Time Warp, Pakistan Star, Eagle Way, Rise High, Dark Dream and Mongolian King.