This Sunday, Nov. 28, Tokyo Racecourse hosts the Grade 1 Japan Cup, the iconic invitational gala that has been instrumental in boosting Japan’s horses and horsemen to the heights of international competitiveness they now enjoy. Some JPY 648 million, over USD 6 million, is up for grabs.
Japan’s horses have monopolized the winner’s circle for the past 15 years, and though dwindling participation by foreign raiders (only one last year and none in 2019) may have turned the odds in their favor, Japan’s domination requires no math. Japan brings its very best to the race and this year is no different.
Eighteen Japan-based runners have been nominated for 15 berths in the 41st running of the 2,400-meter turf event. There are six Grade 1 winners among them, with 2020 Triple Crown champion Contrail ready to join the ranks of Japan’s top 10 money earners ever if he can land the race.
Unlike two years ago, there will be no default victory for Japan this year. Three overseas challengers, all top-level winners, have flown in to attempt to land the JPY300 million winner’s prize. Two of them – Japan and Broome – hail from the stable of Aidan O’Brien. Grand Glory is fielded by French trainer Gianluca Bietolini. All three arrived in Japan on Nov. 19.
The U.K.-bred Grand Glory, a 5-year-old Olympic Glory mare was raced exclusively over 10 furlongs this year, captured the Grade 3 Grand Prix de Vichy in July, and followed that up with a win of the G1 Prix Jean Romanet at Deauville in August. Last out Oct. 3, she came in second under jockey Frankie Dettori in the Prix de L’Opera at Longchamp. Jockey Cristian Demuro, who rode both the mare’s wins this summer, will be her partner on Sunday.
Both Broome and Japan share Japanese connections and are just off a run in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Nov. 6. Broome narrowly missed the win by half a length and Japan finished fourth. Earlier this year, in July, Broome won the Grade 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, then ran fourth later that month at Ascot in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. September saw him barely miss clinching the Prix Foy under Frankie Dettori before disappointing in the Arc in 11th place, partnered with Yutaka Take. This time he’ll have Ryan Moore in the saddle.
Japan won a G3 over 1,800 meters at Leopardstown in July, before traveling to the U.S. for three starts, all over 2,400 meters, and posted 2-6-4. He’ll have four-time winner of the Japan Cup Yutaka Take in the saddle.
The left-handed Tokyo Racecourse is known for its sweeping turns and seemingly endless homestretch with an upward slope starting shortly after the horses turn into the straight. The Japan Cup will be run over the C course, which, with the inner rail moved in 6 meters from the inner rail, measures 25-35 meters across. The same course is just over 2,120 meters around and the Tokyo turf 2,400 meters starts in front of the grandstand at the top of the stretch hill.
Horses will carry 57 kg, with a 2-kg allowance for mares and 3-year-old colts. A 4-kg allowance will be enjoyed by the field’s sole 3-year-old filly – Uberleben, who won the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) over the Tokyo 2,400 meters this May while carrying 2 kg more.
Note that although the Japan Cup post time will be the usual 3:40 p.m. for Grade 1 events at the venue, the Japan Cup will be the 12th and last race on Sunday.
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Here’s a look at some of the standouts from the Japan team.
Contrail: Following in the steps of his sire Deep Impact, Contrail swept the 2020 3-year-old classics to become Japan’s 8th Triple Crown winner. The eighth was also the race that saw him finish out of the winner’s circle for the first time, second by a length and a quarter to Almond Eye in last year’s Japan Cup. He failed to win in his next two outings, but still, has yet to finish further back than third. The Japan Cup is only his third race since last year’s Japan Cup. Next up in April, he encountered heavy ground for the first time and ran third nearly 5 lengths behind winner Lei Papale in the 2,000-meter Grade 1 Osaka Hai. He then returned for a second 1 length behind Efforia in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). The colt’s retirement was announced in early October and the Japan Cup later confirmed as his final race. Trainer Yoshito Yahagi, just back from a Breeders’ Cup double victory, is the current No. 2 trainer for wins in Japan. Yahagi has yet to win a Grade 1 at home this year and has yet to win the Japan Cup. With farewells impending, he has one last mission to accomplish…or two. “The time passed so quickly. Of course, it’s sad. The other day we took on the Breeders’ Cup as challengers and that made things easier. But, this time, while I’m looking for results, at the same time, I have to be sure he finishes without mishap. And this makes me very tense.” Tense or not, Yahagi has the coolheaded jockey Yuichi Fukunaga on his side. Fukunaga has yet to win the Japan Cup, but he has bagged three Grade 1s so far this year. If anyone can, Fukunaga, who has ridden all but one of the colt’s 10 races thus far, can bring Contrail home safely, and a winner.
Shahryar: With only fives starts thus far, the 3-year-old Shahryar by Deep Impact beat Efforia to the finish by a nose in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) this spring, then started his autumn campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Kobe Shimbun Hai over 2,200 meters at Chukyo, where races are, like Tokyo, run to the left. He finished 5 lengths of the winner, in the rain and over a sloppy track and rider Yuichi Fukunaga said the colt’s responses had been slow and claimed the rain and poor going had prevented him from racing to his best. The Japan Cup will be Shahryar’s third start at the venue. Before the Japanese Derby, he had run third to winner Efforia in the Grade 3 Kyodo News Hai (Tokinominoru Kinen), over Tokyo 1,800 meters in February. With Fukunaga taking the reins of Contrail in the Japan Cup, the ride on Shahryar is going to jockey Yuga Kawada, who has ridden the colt once before, to a win of a G3 at Hanshin. Back once again at the site of his Derby victory, Shahryar will attempt to become only the eighth 3-year-old to conquer the Japan Cup and would top both El Condor Pasa (1998) and Almond Eye (2018) to become the first to ace the race with the shortest career yet.
Authority: On Nov. 7, the 4-year-old Authority returned after six months recovering from a fracture and laid claim by 2 1/2 lengths to his second win in a row of the Grade 2 Copa Republica Argentina over the Tokyo 2,500 meters. It was his first win in three starts this year, following two spring runs over marathon distances of 3,400 and 3,200 meters that brought him a second in the Grade 3 Diamond Stakes, but only a dismal 10th in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring). Back at Tokyo, however, where he enjoys a 1-1-2-1 record, the hefty son of Triple Crown winner Orfevre will be able to have room to move as well as be closer to his Miho base. There is little time between races, but Yu Ota, assistant to trainer Tetsuya Kimura, says the colt is looking fine. “He came out of the race well and is very much on his toes. After a week off, he’s back at his usual routine. We’re trying not to pressure him by demanding too much but we also haven’t gone too easy on the work.” Jockey Christophe Lemaire, gunning for his fourth Japan Cup win, will be up.
Aristoteles: Aristoteles, a 4-year-old by 2014 Japan Cup winner Epiphaneia, ran second in the Triple Crown final leg, the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Legers) over Kyoto 3,000 meters. Contrail beat him by a mere neck. He started this year with a win of the Grade 2 American Jockey Club Cup over Nakayama 2,200 meters, then recorded 7-4-9 in his next three, the two most recent Grade 1s. He returned with a promising second by a nose in the Grade 2 Kyoto Daishoten on Oct. 10 under jockey Mirco Demuro. This will be only the second time at Tokyo for the Ritto-based Aristoteles. His first run brought a sixth in the Principal Stakes, a listed race over 2,000 meters last May, but the extra distance this time should be a plus. The colt has had five different riders in his 14 starts thus far, and this time there’s another new face expected aboard, young star Takeshi Yokoyama, who has already ridden the winner in three Grade 1s this year.
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Others to watch include:
With two strong showings in Grade 3 company earlier this year, Shadow Diva returned after two months off to capture the Oct. 16 Ireland Trophy Fuchu Himba Stakes, a Grade 2 over the Tokyo 1,800 meters. Though it will be only her second start over the Japan Cup distance, all but one of her five starts over the Tokyo 2,000 have been in the top 3. With the right trip, the Heart’s Cry 5-year-old could surprise.
Another possible runner is Sanrei Pocket, a 6-year-old by 2001 Japan Cup winner Jungle Pocket. After returning Oct. 10 for a sixth in the Grade 2 Mainichi Okan, he ended the month with a powerful drive that brought him a fourth in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). He’s looking good in trackwork and the extra distance will be welcome.