The top-level races keep on coming and this Sunday sees the international highlight of the year – the Grade 1 Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse. A young team from overseas will take on the expected14 runners from Japan in a bid to lay claim to the Tokyo 2,400-meter jewel. Three of the four horses that have flown in from Europe are 3-year-olds. Three hail from France, one from Germany, and all but one have already pocketed a top-level competition.
For years now, the Japan Cup bar has been out of reach to the visitors. Japan-based horses have dominated the winner’s circle for the past 16 years. However, the upsets rocking the stands in Grade 1 action the past 2 weeks may be indicative of a similar outcome in the Japan Cup. The 42nd running of the iconic race and its first-place prize of 300 million yen (matched only by the year-end Arima Kinen (Grand Prix)) may be snatched up by one of the foreign raiders.
A look at the visiting horses reveals one Japan Cup repeater – Grand Glory. The now 6-year-old, English-bred mare just made the board last year with her fifth-place finish under Cristian Demuro and, this year, has had two wins from five starts, including a graded-stakes victory. She posted a third, seventh, fifth in her three Grade 1 bids, the best result coming at Ascot in the Prince of Wales, where her third topped fourth-place Shahryar, who is one of Japan’s top players this week. Grand Glory, fielded by French trainer Gianluca Bietolini, is coming off of the Oct. 2 Prix de L’Arc Triomphe at Longchamp in early October, where she finished ahead of Japan’s four runners, none of whom are participating in the Japan Cup. Maxime Guyon, who last rode in Japan in 2014, is set for the ride on Sunday.
Of the four challengers from overseas, gaining perhaps the most attention heading into the race is the Irish-bred, France-based Onesto. The Frankel-sired colt, trained by the Chantilly-based Fabrice Chappet, shares the top spot in the ratings with Germany’s Tunnes, both with 123 points, three more than Japan’s top-rated Danon Beluga and Shahyrar, who each rate 120. Onesto has raced in four Grade 1s this year, with a win and a runnerup effort. After a fifth in the French Derby at Chantilly in June, Onesto went on to capture the Grand Prix de Paris, which was run over slightly heavy ground over the Longchamp 2,400 meters. That was followed by a second in the 2,000-meter Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown and his most recent start the Arc, where he posted a 10th over heavy ground. If the weather holds, the Japan Cup will be his first turf event on fast ground. Onesto is scheduled to be paired with one of Japan’s best – Frenchman Christophe Lemaire.
The Irish-bred Simca Mille, by Tamayuz, hails from the Deauville-based stable of Stephane Wattel. The colt has yet to win at the top level, but has come close. He took the lead in the Grand Prix de Paris and finished second to Onesto. Next out, Simca Mille nabbed his first Grade 2 in topping the Prix Niel field, which included fourth-place finisher Do Deuce from Japan. Rider Gregory Benoist, who rode the Prix Niel, is expected up on Sunday. Not new to Japan, Benoist has ridden in Japan on a short-term license and already has 21 wins of JRA races to his name.
Completing the roster is Tunnes. Partnered with Kazakhstan native Bauyrzhan Murzabayev, together they prove quite the accomplished pair. The Guiliani-sired colt was second in his debut and has gone on to sweep his next five starts, two wire-to-wire, including his first Grade 1 bid – the 2,400-meter Grosser Preis von Bayern – early this month in Munich. Murzabayev, who currently rides for the Cologne-based Peter Schiergen, has won the German flat racing jockey championship for the past three years. It is his first appearance in Japan.
The left-handed Tokyo Racecourse is known for its spaciousness, long homestretch, and the hill that starts soon after the field rounds the final bend usually separates the good from the better. The Japan Cup will be starting in front of the grandstand and will go around one lap, with horses carrying 57 kg and 3-year-olds and females given a 2-kg allowance. The race will have the usual Grade 1 post time of 15:40 local time, but will be the 12th and final race of the day.
Standouts amid Japan’s hopefuls are:
Shahyrar: The 4-year-old Shahyrar is a son of Deep Impact, who won the 2006 Japan Cup at the same age. Shahyrar, like his sire, won over the same Tokyo 2,400 meters last year in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) and will be carrying much of Japan’s hopes to keep its winning streak going. But, in Shahyrar’s five starts since the Derby (four of them Grade 1s), he has captured only one race, the Dubai Sheema Classic in late March of this year. Third in last year’s Japan Cup under Yuga Kawada, he nonetheless has never been far off the mark. Fourth in the Prince of Wales at Ascot, he returned to Japan to take on the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and finished fifth. The extra distance and the guidance from Cristian Demuro, who is riding well thus far in his short-term license including a win of the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup two weeks ago, may help get him home a winner.
Danon Beluga: A 3-year-old son of Heart’s Cry, Danon Beluga has posted two fourths and a third in his last three outings, all Grade 1 competitions, and he beat Shahyrar to the line in the most recent, the Tenno Sho (Autumn). He is set to be partnered with Yuga Kawada, Japan’s current leading jockey, who has ridden the colt’s last three races. With only five starts behind him, if Danon Beluga can pull of the win, he will beat former legendary champions El Condor Pasa and Almond Eye in rewriting the record books for having captured the race with the shortest career ever. And, as he has yet to win a Grade 1 race, he would also become the first 3-year-old to win his first G1 with the Japan Cup since U.S. representative Half Iced in 1982.
Vela Azul: Vela Azul, a 5-year-son of Eishin Flash, is a name not often heard amid the lineups of Japan’s top races. The reason is Vela Azul is fresh off a win of only his first graded-stakes yet (the Grade 2 Kyoto Daishoten) in a career already 21 starts long. Most of that career, however, was on dirt and he was only switched to the turf five starts ago in March. Starting at the 2-win class, he rose quickly, claiming his third win on grass with the Kyoto Daishoten at Hanshin. All of his races have been over 2,400-2,600 meters and he has won over fast and slightly heavy going, which bodes well for Sunday, as rain is predicted for Tokyo on Wednesday, but not afterward. He has had four different jockeys since switching to turf, and will likely have a new one in Ryan Moore on Sunday. Moore began riding on his short-term license in Japan mid-November and, from 24 rides, has brought 12 horses home in the top three, six of them winners, three of them winning at Tokyo. Vela Azul’s sire took part in four Japan Cups, but never finished better than eighth place. Perhaps his son (whose name means “blue candle” in Spanish) can light a fire over the Tokyo homestretch and find his way home a winner.
Weltreisende: A 5-year-old son of Dream Journey, Weltreisende has proved highly consistent in 11 starts thus far, all but two at the graded-stakes level, and has finished out of the money only three times. In four tries at Grade 1 level, he has a runnerup in the Hopeful Stakes and a third in the Japanese Derby – both races won by the Triple Crown horse Contrail. In June, Weltreisende returned after six months off to claim the Grade 3 Naruo Kinen under Damian Lane, then took on the Sankei Sho All Comers nearly four months later over the Nakayama 2,200 meters, traveled wide and finished in seventh. However, with that as a sharpener, improvement is expected and likely partner Lane, just off a win of the Grade 1 Mile Championship, may be able to keep the momentum going.
Others to watch include:
2020 Triple Tiara champion Daring Tact won the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) over the Tokyo 2,400 and that same year finished third in the Japan Cup behind Almond Eye and Contrail, not your everyday competition. She sat out of the 2021 Japan Cup but has four starts this year and a not-too-shabby sixth last out in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, which was a furlong shy of her favorite 12 furlongs. She will also have 1 kg less to carry this time. The 4-year-old filly Uberleben has a best fifth-place finish since her win of the 2021 Japanese Oaks. Last year’s Japan Cup brought a sixth-place finish but this year, heading in from an 8th in the Tenno Sho (Autumn), she is looking leaner and may be able to at least better her score. Stayer T O Royal was third in the 3,200-meter Tenno Sho (Spring) this year. He is sharpened and yet still fresh after a hampered run in the Copa Republica Argentina, where an accident caused interference for many, including Sakae Kunieda’s Heart’s Histoire, who had looked headed for a win before running into traffic problems at the top of the homestretch. Boccherini has been having a good year, with a win, two seconds and a third from four starts, all Grade 2s and over 2,000-2,500 meters. They include the Meguro Kinen this spring over the Tokyo 2,500 meters. It will be his first Grade 1, but wins in both his two previous Tokyo bids indicate he finds the venue to his liking. He is also a full brother to two-time Grade 1 winner Lovely Day, who finished third in the 2015 Japan Cup.