Kentucky Derby, BC Classic Preps Feb. 23 in Japan
Japan's season heats up Feb. 23 at Tokyo Racecourse with two races with American racing implications—the February Stakes (G1), a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), and the Hyacinth Stakes, the third leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.
The February Stakes, run at 1,600 meters (about one mile) at Tokyo Racecourse, is one of only two grade 1 Japanese races run on the dirt. While the country's reigning Horse of the Year, Chrysoberyl, is headed for the $20 million Saudi Cup, the February Stakes retains a big and competitive cast.
Last year's winner, Inti, returns. The 6-year-old son of Came Home is winless in five starts since the 2019 victory but finished third behind winner Chyrsoberyl in Japan's other grade 1 dirt race, the Dec. 1 Champions Cup (G1). He was third again in the Jan. 26 Tokai TV Hai Tokai Stakes (G2) going 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) on a sloppy track at Kyoto, and trainer Kenji Nonaka is high on his chances.
"I was happy with his last run where he finished third, especially considering he had to carry 58 kilos (almost 128 pounds)," Nonaka said. "His condition will improve for that run, and with just the one turn in this next race, it'll be better for him."
The winner of the Kyoto race is sitting out the February Stakes, but the runner-up, 7-year-old Vengeance is back, with trainer Hiroyuki Oneda hanging his hopes on the veteran's last-race finish.
"He was in good shape for his last run, and among that field he had one of the best closing three-furlong times in the race," the conditioner said.
Photo: Courtesy Japan Racing Association
Vengeance wins the 2019 Miyako Stakes at Kyoto Racecourse
Several others boast consistent results in dirt racing, albeit at lower levels, and any misfire by the more experienced top-level contenders could produce a surprise.
The race starts with a brief sprint on the Tokyo Racecourse turf onto the backstretch of the dirt course. It continues around the sweeping turn into the uphill stretch run.
The Hyacinth is the third of four races leading to an invitation to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). After the first two legs, Vacation, by Espoir City, leads the competition with 20 points via a victory in the Dec. 18 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki Racecourse. Dieu du Vin, a Declaration of War colt, is second with 10 points after winning the Cattleya Sho in November in Tokyo. Iolite is third with eight points.
None of the leaders return for the Hyacinth. The 14 nominees, including two fillies, feature only two points-holders: Meisho Tensui, a Dunkirk colt who finished fourth in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, and Daimei Corrida, an Eskendereya colt who reported third in the Cattleya Sho. Each has two points.
The new shooters include two Kentucky-bred American Pharoah colts—Nile River and Cafe Pharoah. Nile River, out of the Smart Strike mare Jeweliana, scored at first asking Nov. 9 on the dirt at Tokyo and has not raced since. Cafe Pharoah, out of the More Than Ready mare Mary's Follies, won his only previous start at Nakayama in December.
Godolphin is represented by Longonot, a Pyro colt who is 2-for-3 with both wins coming on the dirt.
The Cattleya Sho offered points on a 10-4-2-1 scale and the Kawasaki race 20-8-4-2. Things escalate with the Hyacinth awarding 30-12-6-3.
The series concludes March 28 at Nakayama where the Fukuryu Stakes is run for 40-16-8-4 points.
The series is designed to boost interest and wagering on the Run for the Roses among Japanese fans, who eagerly follow the international exploits of their favorites. While it has not yet produced a Japanese winner in Louisville, it has had an impact on the U.S. Triple Crown.
The 2015 Cattleya Sho winner, Lani, shipped to the U.S. and competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, finishing third in the 2016 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1).
Master Fencer, who finished fourth in the Japanese series, accepted the invitation to the 2019 Derby when the top three points-earners declined. The Just a Way colt finished seventh and was placed sixth after the disqualification of Maximum Security. He went on to finish fifth in the Belmont Stakes and 13th in the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (G1T) in July when he was switched to the turf.