Japan Cup (G1) - Preview
Twenty one horses are in line for the big event this week at Tokyo Racecourse and 18 of them will be taking their places in the gate come Sunday. It is the 36th running of the Japan Cup, an icon of international color and now the richest horserace in Japan.
This year, the JRA has boosted the bounty yet again, with a Japan Cup first-place catch now up 50 million yen from last year to an incredible 300 million yen. The total purse has been raised to 624 million yen.
This year, three horses from abroad have made the trip to Japan, two of them repeaters, all of them Grade 1 winners. France once again fields Erupt, and Germany fields two runners – first-time participant Iquitos and Nightflower, looking to better her 11th-place finish of last year.
Erupt has run in the money in three of his five starts this year and is just off a win of the G1 Canadian International at Woodbine, a race that 1996 Japan Cup winner Singspiel had also won, though not immediately previous to his Japan Cup run. Last year, Erupt had come off a fifth-place in the Arc de Triomphe to run sixth in the Japan Cup.
Newcomer Iquitos captured Germany’s most prestigious race, the G1 Grosser Preis von Baden at Baden-Baden in September, with Nightflower running second for the second year in a row. Earlier in the year Iquitos ran first and second in two Group II races, both in Germany. Iquitos followed the Preis von Europa with a run in the Grosser Preis von Bayern at Munich and finished fourth.
Nightflower is coming off a win of the G1 Preis von Europa at Cologne, in which Iquitos ran fifth. It was Nightflower’s second win of the race in a row. She follows the same rotation as last year, hopefully with better results at Tokyo.
If Germany can take home first prize, it will be only the second time and the first in 21 years, not since Landau won in 1995. If Erupt can win for France it will be that nation’s second win of the Japan Cup as well, the first since Le Glorieux in 1987.
The three representatives from the world beyond Japan’s borders have a tough challenge ahead of them though – attempting to turn the tables on the locals’ stronghold of 10 wins in a row.
It wasn’t always so, of course and raising the level of Japanese racing was the biggest reason for the Japan Cup being inaugurated. Foreign raiders took first prize 14 times in the race’s history. But, the last to do so was in 2005, by England’s Alkaased. Alkaased still holds the race record as well as the course record of 2 minutes, 22.1 seconds.
Also, only one horse from abroad has returned to the Japan Cup for a second try. That was Ireland’s Stanerra, who won the third running of the race in 1983.
The home team too sees Japan Cup repeaters in abundance, and all are looking to notch their first win of the year. Last Impact was runnerup by a neck in 2015, followed by fourth-place finisher Jungle Cruise. Fifth over the line was Sounds of Earth and 2014 Derby winner One and Only ran seventh last year. Hit the Target crossed the line in 13th place.
The Japan Cup has favored the top picks in recent years. In the past decade, the winner has come from the top five choices in all but one year, 2008, when ninth pick Screen Hero won. It should be noted that fillies and mares have figured prominently in recent Japan Cups, securing half of the last 10 runnings and appearing in the top three spots seven times in the last decade. This year sees three females in the gate, the 4-year-olds Rouge Buck and Nightflower, along with the 3-year-old filly Biche, third-place finisher in the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks).
The Japan Cup is the 11th and last race on Sunday’s card at Tokyo Racecourse and post time is 15:40 local time. Following are the horses considered the strongest contenders in this year’s lineup:
Kitasan Black: Likely to be neck and neck for top billing with Gold Actor for lowest odds on raceday is Kitasan Black and thus far, his year has been a bright one. Four starts along, he has run second in the Grade 2 Nikkei Osaka Hai, first in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring), followed by a third in the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen and is just off a win of the Grade 2 Kyoto Daishoten, which was the first race he ran in his career 12 outings as the favorite. The 4-year-old son of Black Tide wrapped up last year with a second in the Grade 2 Asahi Hai St. Lite Kinen, first in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) and a third in the Grade 1 Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix). That is seven races straight in the money, four of them top level, four of them wins, two at the top level.
He’s proven himself at distances from 1,800 to 3,000 meters, and though he has aced two of his three Tokyo runs thus far, has yet to win a Tokyo 2,400 meter race. In fact, the only race that marred his record was the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), run under the same conditions as the Japan Cup. After three wins straight and a third in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) last year, Kitasan Black ran 14th in the Derby and since has never finished further back than third.
The Kyoto Daishoten, run on Oct. 10, has given Kitasan Black a bit more than the ideal time between races. He tends to do best with four weeks between races but did notch the Asahi Hai St. Lite Kinen after returning to the track from a 4-month layoff. In the irons, as he has been for the horse’s last four races, will be Yutaka Take, who is tied for three wins of the Japan Cup, the most of any rider.
On Nov. 16, Kitasan Black turned in the fastest time of the day at Ritto Training Center over 6 furlongs, looking sharp at 79.5 seconds. Trainer Hisashi Shimizu said, “We’ve worked him as usual, without doing anything different, just increasing or decreasing the intensity of his workouts. He doesn’t flounder when he gets out on his own anymore, but keeps running solidly now. Every day he’s more and more into a racing mode.” Shimizu says he has no worries about the trip to the track, the distance or how the race unfolds. “He can handle anything.”
Gold Actor: A 5-year-old son of 2008 Japan Cup winner Screen Hero, Gold Actor triumphed in the Arima Kinen (The Grand Prix) last year for his first Grade 1 victory and fourth win in a row at yearend and this year has only had three starts, two of them winning ones. After winning the Nikkei Sho, he ran 12th in the Tenno Sho (Spring), then returned to the track after nearly five months to notch the Sankei Sho All Comers, a Grade 2 over 2,200 meters at Nakayama.
With two previous wins at Tokyo, one an open-class over 2,400 meters and the other the Grade 2 Copa Republica Argentina a half furlong more, Gold Actor is considered primed for success on Sunday. In the saddle will be 32-year-old Hayato Yoshida, who has ridden Gold Actor in all his starts since the summer of 2014. It will be Yoshida’s first time to ride in the Japan Cup.
On Nov. 16, Yoshida pushed Gold Actor over 6 furlongs on the flat in tandem with another horse. Trainer Tadashige Nakagawa said, “Mentally, he looked a bit too laidback. He was a bit slow but, still, his time was OK. And he’ll switch on with this now. It make things easier (this week). Compared to the All Comers, his coat has an excellent sheen to it and he’s able to settle well now. I’m not too concerned about how the race unfolds, but I would prefer to have a sharp pace. He’s a very competitive horse and I know he’ll give it his best.”
Real Steel: Pegged for the ride on Real Steel is ace Ryan Moore, in Japan on a short-term license. That booking will surely be a major factor in lowering odds on the Deep Impact-sired 4-year-old. This colt has, in 11 starts, won three times, but he has run second five times, making his record a frustrating one. In March, Moore got the ride over regular rider Yukichi Fukunaga in the Dubai Turf and won the 1,800-meter Grade 1 by half a length. Fukunaga was back in the saddle for the Yasuda Kinen and finished in 11th place. Another jockey switch ensued next out, with Mirco Demuro riding to a second place in the Tenno Sho (Autumn).
Real Steel’s wins thus far have all come over 1,800 meters and the Japan Cup distance is one slight concern. His two starts over 12 furlongs ended in a fourth in the 2015 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) and a second in the Kobe Shimbun Hai at Hanshin at the end of September. “He was only at 80-85 percent condition for the Tenno Sho (Autumn), but he looked strong. Since then, just looking at him you wouldn’t see much change, but he’s coming along as planned and I expect him to show improvement,” trainer Yoshito Yahagi said. On Nov. 17, Real Steel worked in tandem with the younger brother of Maurice and Yahagi says, “He tried harder than I had expected him to.” The trainer believes 2,000 meters is likely Real Steel’s best distance, but “he settled very nicely last start and a pro like Ryan should be able to get the best from him over the extra 400 meters.”
Dee Majesty: Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) champion Dee Majesty was only able to reel in the first of this year’s Triple Crown, but he is in no way looking to be just a shooting star. The Deep Impact colt scored a third and fourth in the other two classics and two wins at the graded level, including the 1,800-meter Kyodo News Service Hai at Tokyo. Being the youngster he is, he’ll also get a 2-kg weight advantage and could easily make the money, if not the winner’s circle. Connections say the colt rapped his hoof hard during the Kikuka Sho and that he still had room for improvement condition-wise as well, both possible factors in the loss. Dee Majesty looked good in a 5-furlong breeze under jockey Masayoshi Ebina on Nov. 16 and, though he’ll be competing against older horses for the first time, good things are expected of him back over the Tokyo 2,400 meters.
Cheval Grand: The 4-year-old, a son of Heart’s Cry, finished third in the spring version of the Tenno Sho this year, and followed that up with a ninth in the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen. He then returned after about four months off and managed to capture the Copa Republica Argentina, a Grade 2 race over 2,500 meters at Tokyo on Nov. 6. “It was his first trip to Tokyo, his first time racing to the left and he’s cleared both those obstacles. There’s not much time between races, but he’s in good shape, full of energy and I don’t think there’ll be any problems,” trainer Yasuo Tomomichi said.