February Stakes (G1) - Preview
Tokyo Racecourse hosts the first top-level event of the year with the 34th running of the February Stakes on Sunday, Feb. 19. Twenty-six hopefuls, 4 years old and up, have been nominated for what is the first of only two JRA Grade 1 races run over dirt. Only 16 of those nominees will get a ticket to run the Tokyo mile for a chance at the first-place booty of 97 million yen.
This year’s lineup is shaping up to make things especially difficult for bettors. Wagers are expected to be spread across the field as punters vie for a winning pick. The “foreign factor” is raised to the power of three with Ryan Moore joining the dynamic duo of Christophe Lemaire and Mirco Demuro. And, the absence of Yuichi Fukunaga, sidelined by a fall, is yet another factor to be added to the beguiling, befuddling mix.
Moanin, Nonkono Yume, and Asuka Roman, the top three finishers in last year’s February Stakes, are all back and looking to repeat or improve their performances this year. And there is still hope that Copano Rickey, winner of the 2014 and 2015 versions, could still, despite a seventh-place finish last year, become the first horse to win three February Stakes. They’ll be up against some tough competition though, some new names and new talent, including Kafuji Take, the winner of the G3 Negishi Stakes, and Sound True, who scooped the JRA’s other big dirt event, the Champions Cup in December.
The February Stakes will be the 11th race on the Sunday card of 12 at Tokyo Racecourse. Post time is 15:40 local time. Here’s a look at what are likely to be race’s top picks.
Kafuji Take - The Precise End-sired Kafuji Take grabbed the spotlight when he virtually flew down the homestretch to win the G3 Negishi Stakes on Jan. 29 at Tokyo. Unable to pick up speed out of the gate, Kafuji Take lagged a length or two behind, raced from the rear and was still there, more than 10 lengths off the front, with only 400 meters to go. But that’s where he switched into top gear to cover the final 3 furlongs in a blistering turf-like 34.5 seconds and notch his first graded stakes race. Firmly established as a bright new star, Kafuji Take adds a generous dash of spice to the February Stakes lineup, which had been expected to feature mostly the old familiar faces. Fielded by trainer Sachio Yukubo, the 5-year-old Kafuji Take, the latter portion of whose name is pronounced like the English word, looks to be playing to win after finally moving to graded stakes company on his 18th start last summer. In November, Kafuji Take finished third in the G3, 1,600-meter Musashino Stakes at Tokyo, a race that was won in record time. The following month he took on his first Grade 1 race with the 1,800-meter Champions Cup and surprised when he ran fourth only 0.2 seconds off winner Sound True. Kafuji Take looks like he has come into his own, and although he will not have Fukunaga in the saddle this time, it would be no surprise if he took home the top prize.
Sound True - Sound True, a 7-year-old gelding by French Deputy, claimed first place in the Champions Stakes last year and took top honors as JRA Best Dirt Horse for 2016. This will be his first February Stakes, the first 150 meters of which are actually run over turf, but Sound True is a highly consistent seasoned runner and can handle the unusual combination. He has notched 9 wins, including three over the Tokyo dirt mile, 9 seconds and 13 thirds from 40 starts. Sound True has made the top three spots in all but one of his last 13 starts, eight of which were top-level NAR races, in addition to his win of the G1 Champions Cup at Chukyo in December and a third in the same race the year before. It will be his first time at Tokyo since the summer of 2015 and he will surely find the long Fuchu stretch a welcome change.
Moanin - This 5-year-old by Henny Hughes out of the stable of Sei ishizaka, rewrote the Tokyo course record in last year’s February Stakes with his winning time of 1 minute, 34.0 seconds and improved his own record at the time to 6 wins in 7 starts. Moanin has, however, failed to make the winner’s circle in his four starts since. He was runnerup by a head and 5 lengths ahead of third-place Sound True in the Nihon TV Hai at Funabashi in September, and his seventh-place in the Musashino Stakes at Tokyo could be forgiven due to the fact that he was carrying the top weight of 59kg, 3 kg more than the six horses who beat him over the line. Though the weights carried were the same for the top eight horses next out in the Champions Cup, Moanin again finished seventh, 0.5 seconds behind winner Sound True. Keita Tosaki has been in the irons for his last three starts, but this time Moore is pegged for the ride.
Nonkono Yume - A dark chestnut gelding by Twining, Nonkono Yume won big on the NAR circuit in the summer of 2015, when he was victorious in the Japan Dirt Derby. He almost realized his first JRA dream win when he ran second in the G1 Champions Cup two starts later. Some two and a half months later, he again ran second, this time in the 2016 February Stakes. He failed to win his next five starts as well, four outings at NAR tracks and his second bid in the 2016 Champions Cup, in which he finished sixth, 0.4 seconds off winner Sound True. Nonkono Yume does have consistency on his side, however, having never finished further back than sixth place. He will be returning to Tokyo, where he has, from six starts, tallied four wins, a second and a third and the change of venue will likely be welcome. Nonkono Yume’s Tokyo wins include the 2015 Unicorn Stakes and Musashino Stakes, both run over a mile on dirt. This will be his first time back at Tokyo since last year’s February Stakes. Christophe Lemaire has the ride.
Copano Rickey - The Gold Allure-sired Copano Rickey finished seventh in this race last year, but followed that performance up with a three-way winning streak as he pocketed the Kashiwa Kinen, the Teio Sho and the Nanbu Hai, all at NAR venues. He made the board in two of his last three starts, but his Champion Cup finish was a double-digit one. Tosaki rode Copano Rickey to a fifth last out in the Tokyo Daishoten at Ohi Racecourse on Dec. 29, but Yutaka Take is expected to take the reins this time out.
Not to be forgotten are Gold Dream, who beat Kafuji Take to the line in finishing second in the Musashino Stakes, but was late out of the gate next out in the Champion Stakes. Gold Dream has won both an open-class race and the G3 Unicorn Stakes at Tokyo, both over the mile on dirt. Mirco Demuro has the ride. Also, Asukano Roman, a 6-year-old son of Agnes Digital, ran third in this race last year, 0.2 seconds off the winner. He is coming off an eighth-place finish in the G2 Tokai Stakes at Chukyo on Jan. 22. That was preceded by a third in the Champions Cup. Best Warrior, paired with the 2016 JRA leading jockey Keita Tosaki, surely should be included among the top picks. This will be his fourth straight bid in the February Stakes and other than on his first try, when he faced older horses in a G1 for the first time, Best Warrior has done well, finishing a respectable third in 2015 and fourth last year. He is coming off a second in the Negishi Stakes.
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(English racecall for races after 2006)
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2017 Winner: Gold Dream
2016 Winner: Moanin