February Stakes (G1) - Preview
JRA Grade 1 action returns for the first time in 2022, with this Sunday’s (Feb. 20) February Stakes, one of just two dirt races in the year at the highest level. Tokyo Racecourse is the venue for the 1,600 meters race that starts in the backstretch just off the main dirt oval, so the runners set off on the turf course before soon linking up with the dirt track. There’s a good straight run before the turn that takes the field back towards the stands, followed by the tough Tokyo homestraight of about 500 meters on the dirt course.
Formerly known as the February Handicap when it was first run in 1984 as a domestic Grade 3 race, it got its current name in 1994, when it was also elevated to a Grade 2, and three years later was given its current Grade 1 status. Overseas runners have been able to take on the race since 2007. There are 24 nominations for a maximum 16 runner field in this year’s Grade 1 February Stakes, and it’s a race for 4-year-olds and up, where the allotted weight is 57kg, with a 2kg allowance for fillies and mares. Two of Japan’s top dirt performers will be missing from the line-up, as Chuwa Wizard and T O Keynes (JRA Best Dirt Horse of 2021) are expected to take on the big challenges in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, so the year’s first top-level race in Japan should be a fairly open affair. There are plenty of horses with chances, together with some interesting jockey bookings.
In the last 10 years, four first favorites have won the February Stakes, and the past three years have seen the market leader win the race. Cafe Pharoah’s win last year just tipped the scales in favor of the 4-year-olds, as they have now won four times in the past decade, more than any other age group. There has only ever been one 7-year-old winner of the race, and that was Roman Prince back in 1988. Record time for the race is held by Moanin, winning in a time of 1 minute 34.0 seconds in 2016. There’s a prize money boost for the year’s first Grade 1, with an overall total of JPY259 million, and JPY120 million (just over USD1 million) going to the winner. The first past the post also gets an automatic entry to this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland later in the year. A couple of the usual races leading up to this week’s big race have been the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes, run over 1,400 meters at Tokyo in January, and the Grade 2 Tokai TV Hai Tokai Stakes, run over 1,800 meters at Chukyo, also in January.
Post time for the 39th running of the Grade 1 February Stakes will be 15:40 local time, and it will be Race 11 on the Sunday card at Tokyo.
Here’s a look at some of the runners expected to get plenty of support in the market:
Cafe Pharoah: The defending champion, the now 5-year-old American bred is looking to become just the second horse in the history of the February Stakes to win it twice, after Copano Rickey’s wins in 2014 and 2015. It will be his first run since finishing 11th in last year’s Grade 1 Champions Cup, but he’s unbeaten in three races at Tokyo, all over 1,600 meters. “He came back to the stable on January 13, and that’s been the usual pattern with him, returning early from the farm. He has got a thick winter coat. About two weeks ago he worked smoothly, without moving his head around and playing with the bit, and ran well right up to the end,” trainer Noriyuki Hori said. Jockey Yuichi Fukunaga, recently back riding winners after his injury in Hong Kong, will try to get the best out of the son of American Pharoah.
Red le Zele: After finishing 4th in last year’s February Stakes, the 6-year-old by Lord Kanaloa is seemingly still on the up, and that’s also after finishing 2nd on his trip to Dubai last year. He will be having his first start of the year, but last time out he recorded a strong win in the JBC Sprint, held at Kanazawa last November over 1,400 meters. Trainer Takayuki Yasuda was impressed, along with many others, by that performance. “It was a bold run last time, when he got a clear run up the inside, where the dirt was deep, to win impressively. He has been at the farm since, but this has been his target, and things have been fine with him. He is the type that’s good in winter,” the trainer said. Transcend (2011) and Grape Brandy (2013) have been two winners of the race for Yasuda, one of Japan’s top trainers.
Sodashi: Last year’s Grade 1 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) winner is on a recovery mission here, after failing to place in her last two races, the latest being the Champions Cup at the end of last year, her first run on dirt. Trainer Naosuke Sugai still has plenty of faith in the Kurofune filly, and she has been working well in her bid to win again. “In recent training, she’s been showing plenty of power, particularly at the finish. She just wasn’t able to keep things going in the Shuka Sho and Champions Cup last year, but I’m pleased enough with the way she’s been moving recently, and running on dirt seems suitable for her,” commented the trainer. Jockey Hayato Yoshida knows the filly well, and once again he’ll try and make things work out for the best.
T M South Dan: Beating home some of the more fancied runners in the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes last time, the 5-year-old brought up jockey Yasunari Iwata’s 1,700th JRA win in that race, and now together they tackle the horse’s first try in a JRA Grade 1. All told, T M South Dan boasts a 50% win strike rate, and trainer Yuzo Iida is pleased with the horse. “He won well last time, not having to jostle for a position early, but could save everything for a strong finish. There has just been a short time between races, but he’s in good shape, and he tends to come out of his races better these days,” the trainer commented.
Arctos: It has to be said that for a purchase price of around JPY20 million at the Hokkaido Selection Sale in 2016, the 7-year-old has proved to be a wise buy. Getting him to win a JRA Grade 1 race has yet to happen (he finished 9th in the February Stakes in 2020 and 2021), but trainer Toru Kurita has a different rotation for the horse this time, as this will be his first race of the year. Arctos won his last two starts in 2021, both NAR races at Urawa and Morioka. “We gave him a run in the Negishi Stakes last year as a prep for the February Stakes, but he didn’t get a good result in the latter. This time, he won’t have had a race before this one, but he’s done well previously coming off a break, and hopefully I’ll have him just right for a run here,” the trainer said. Jockey Hironobu Tanabe knows the horse well, having partnered him in 19 of his 22 career races, and has won on him nine times.
Suave Aramis: Another 7-year-old that caught the eye in his last race, Suave Aramis just kept producing more when winning the Grade 2 Tokai TV Hai Tokai Stakes over 1,800 meters at Chukyo in January, leaving some of the more fancied runners trailing in his wake. He is another likely runner for trainer Naosuke Sugai, and he had the following to say about the horse recently: “It was a race with many horses last time, and while previously in his runs, he’s often given chase throughout, this last time the jockey rode him patiently and got a very smooth run out of him, which I could take a lot from.”
Soliste Thunder: Beaten favorite last time when he could only finish 9th in the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes over 1,400 meters at Tokyo in January, the 7-year-old by Toby’s Corner is looking to put that run behind him. In general, he has a good enough win and place strike rate, and connections will be hoping for a better run this time around. “He struggled to keep up with the others last time, and in the end, he couldn’t produce anything at the finish, just when I thought he might. The jockey also didn’t know why this was the case. So on that run, the distance of 1,600 meters this time could be better for him,” assistant trainer Juntaro Taira said.