By MICHAEL CASEY
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 11:07 AM
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- When Buena Vista breaks from the starting gate in Saturday's Dubai World Cup, the 5-year-old mare will have a chance to lift the spirits of all of Japan with a winning performance in the world's richest horse race.
Buena Vista is one of three horses - along with Transcend and Victoire Pisa - in the $10 million race that are based in disaster-ravaged Japan.
The mare had already arrived in Dubai when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, but her owners have since been forced to relocate 200 other horses and staff from one of its training centers because it was only 19 miles from the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.
"Every citizen is downhearted after the recent tragedies, and I am sure a victory would lift spirits of the Japanese people," said Katsumi Yoshida, a trustee of Sunday Racing Co., which owns Buena Vista. "Buena Vista is indeed very popular with the racing fans so a victory can only be a good thing for everyone."
While they are competitive on the track, all three Japanese owners spoke with one voice when it came to the crisis back home. They all said success Saturday could rally the spirits of the country which is struggling to recover from the disaster which so far has killed more than 9,700, left nearly 16,500 missing and could end up costing the country $309 billion.
Most of the Japanese teams are wearing black polo shirts with the word "hope" above a Japanese flag on the right sleeve and the date of the quake and tsunami on the back.
"Many of those people who died, were injured or suffered from the earthquake or tsunami included lots of horse racing fans," said Koji Maeda, the owner of Transcend. "If my horse wins, it can help encourage them and strongly hope it does."
Katsuhiko Sumii, the trainer of Victoire Pisa, said he initially considered pulling out of the race. One of the team's stables in one of the hardest-hit prefectures, Miyagi, barely avoided being hit by the tsunami, he said, but the 200 horses have been relocated because the area has no electricity or running water.
"My personal feeling was should we really be racing? At first I thought so," said Sumii, who also trains Rulership, who is running in the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic.
"But with the results of this race, we hope to bring back some hope and courage to the people of Japan," he said. "We have three Japanese horses in the biggest race. We have all come together and we are looking for a very good race because all the horses are in terrific condition."
Horse racing is one of Japan's most popular sports, but until now no Japan-based horse has won the Dubai World Cup. By most accounts, this year could be different, with all three horses given a legitimate chance of winning the race that drew a field of 14 from five countries.
Simon Crisford, racing manager at Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Godolphin stables, called the three Japanese horses "top, top notch, top class, very good and very much respected."
"I like Buena Vista a lot," Crisford said. "The Japanese this year in particular have to be very, very respected because they are bringing quality class horses."
Crisford is not alone in favoring Buena Vista among the three. Selected the horse of the year in Japan in 2010, she remains a fan favorite and has the winning credentials after finishing second in Dubai last year in the Sheema Classic. She has eight wins in 17 career starts as well as six seconds and three thirds - meaning she has never finished out of the money.
Yoshida said the horse was adapting well to Dubai.
"She looks fit, she has thrived since she arrived in Dubai, and if we did not think she had a chance we would not be here," he said in an email interview . "I know it's a top quality field, but I believe in Buena Vista's ability."
The other two horses also have strong records, with Transcend winning eight of 15 starts and looking strong in training this week.
"He was galloping on this past Sunday as well, so I wanted to give him a steady gallop only for the (200m)," Transcend's trainer Takayuki Yasuda said.
"As far as I saw him this morning, he looked great," he said. "He eats up very well, and he came from the cold-weather country to Dubai with the warm climate, which was good for his condition. The surface of all-weather is the first experience for me, and I thought it would not be slippery more than expected, and horse seemed to get hold the surface."
Victoire Pisa has seven wins in 12 starts, including a victory over Buena Vista in December in the Arima Kinen, which is a Group 1 race in Japan.
Though Sumii admitted Victoire Pisa hasn't raced against such a "strong field" of European horses before and never on the all-weather, Tapeta surface in Dubai, he said the horse had trained well this week and that he was looking forward to resuming the rivalry Saturday with Buena Vista.