Early look at the Champions Cup, the race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt

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December 1st, 2015

The Japan Autumn International concludes Sunday with the Champions Cup (G1). If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because you’re more likely to remember its former name, the Japan Cup Dirt (G1). This marks the second year of its new branding at Chukyo.

While the name is still relatively new, many of the projected competitors are quite familiar. Defending champion Hokko Tarumae will be making his fourth consecutive appearance in this race, as will Grape Brandy and Roman Legend. The 2012 hero Nihonpiro Ours is back for his fifth straight gig, while three-time runner-up Wonder Acute will be lining up for a remarkable sixth try.

Copano Rickey, who flopped as the favorite last year after a poor start, is entitled to do a lot better this time. The respective second and fourth from the 2014 Champions Cup, Namura Victor and the mare Sambista, are also back.

But there’s no shortage of fresh faces in the mix as well. Hong Kong’s dirt demon Gun Pit will test himself at the international Grade 1 level on a rather different species of dirt; Japanese sophomores Nonkono Yume and Danon Liberty hope to strike a blow for the younger generation; Roi Jardin, Sound True and Awardee all bring progressive profiles; and sprint filly Corin Berry will try to carry her speed about 1 1/8 miles.

Hokko Tarumae, Japan’s reigning champion dirt horse, has tied the record for most Grade 1 wins (including those on the local NAR circuit) with nine. Having joined past dirt stars Vermilion and Espoir City at that number, he would surpass them with a repeat here. Hokko Tarumae enters his title defense in similar form. Last year, he finished fourth in his comeback in the JBC Classic and moved forward off that prep. This time, he was a flat-footed third behind Copano Rickey in the JBC Classic.

Yet there is a difference between the Hokko Tarumae of 2014 and 2015, and it’s a positive one. He performed vastly better in the Dubai World Cup (G1), finishing fifth, compared to his last-of-16 in the desert a year ago. He exited that debacle very ill, and wasn’t seen again until the 2014 JBC Classic. With no such setbacks in 2015, Hokko Tarumae returned to action June 24 and reclaimed his old crown in the Teio Sho. Should he succeed Sunday, he’d become just the second back-to-back winner of the Champions Cup, following Transcend (2010-11).

Copano Rickey is the primary threat, having won the past two editions of both the February (G1) and the JBC Classic. Sidelined by injury after his February repeat, he was an understandably tiring third in his reappearance at Funabashi in October. But the son of Gold Allure was back to his brilliant best in the November 3 JBC Classic at Ohi, where he led throughout and won handily. He’d be just the candidate to prosper at Chukyo, which has been regarded as typically speed-friendly.

If there’s a potential complication for Copano Rickey, it could be the presence of Corin Berry, who exits a victory on the same JBC Day festivities at Ohi. The speedy filly took the blinkers off for the JBC Sprint and went wire to wire, defeating a classy male in Danon Legend. Corin Berry has found her niche in the six to seven-furlong range, and as a daughter of the End Sweep stallion South Vigorous (himself the JBC Sprint hero of 2003), she’s doubtful to see out this trip. Yet she might play a role in the outcome if she lures Copano Rickey into going too fast to chase her.

A generous pace could tilt the playing field toward the closers, and Nonkono Yume might be the best of them. By Twining and from the family of Heart’s Cry, the three-year-old dark chestnut has a devastating late kick. You think he can’t possibly get there, until he levels off, lengthens his gigantic stride, and propels rocket-like in deep stretch. After winning the Unicorn (G3) and Japan Dirt Derby going away, Nonkono Yume got up at the wire in the November 14 Musashino (G3) in his first try versus older horses. This is a stiffer test of class, and only three sophomores have won this race (Kurofune in 2001, Kane Hekili in 2005 and Alondite in 2006). Yet he remains an exciting type, and the pace scenario might write the script for him.

Gun Pit would likewise be served by a quick tempo, with the major question being adaptation to the sandy surface at Chukyo. A perfect seven-for-seven over the Sha Tin dirt, the Dubawi gelding has treated his handicap opponents with thinly veiled contempt. Gun Pit has conceded lumps of weight while setting back-to-back track records, under confident handling by Zac Purton. Trainer Caspar Fownes believes that Gun Pit has the ability to travel the world for elite dirt races, and he’s eligible to make a grand start here. Invaders have had a tough time in this race, though, with the Doug O’Neill-trained Fleetstreet Dancer the lone international to win -- in the Tokyo slop in 2003.

Namura Victor, hard-charging second to Hokko Tarumae here last year, warmed up with an eye-catching third behind Awardee in the October 3 Sirius (G3). Awardee, indifferent on turf, has won two straight since switching to dirt. He was favorably treated at the weights in the Sirius, however.

Danon Liberty was a convincing winner over older horses in the August 29 BSN Sho at Niigata, contested at this about nine-furlong trip. Although he’s been beaten in a pair of Grade 3 preps, neither likely revealed his true ability. When second to Awardee in the Sirius, he was meeting the five-year-old winner at level weights, and over an about 1 1/4-mile distance that stretches him. Last time in the November 8 Miyako (G3), he didn’t pick up as well as usual on a very sloppy track and wound up sixth to Roi Jardin. By King Kamehameha – the sire of the last two winners of this race – and out of a half-sister to Vermilion, he’s related to several accomplished dirt performers. The main question is whether he’ll be stronger in the years to come.

Roi Jardin, in contrast, relished the slop as he rallied up the rail to capture his graded debut in the Miyako. A full brother to Golden Ticket, the third-place finisher in the 2009 Japan Cup Dirt, he’s yet another by King Kamehameha. Roi Jardin counts as his second dam Group 1 star Ski Paradise, second to Lure in the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).

Roman Legend was an excellent third in the Miyako, his first start back from a bone chip. Sparingly raced since his banner 2012, the seven-year-old is as plucky as they come. Of his trio of attempts in this race, his best was a third last year. Kurino Star O was fifth in the Miyako for the second straight year; he hopes that pattern doesn’t hold in the Champions Cup, in which he was eighth a year ago.

Sound True is in the form of his life at present. Having beaten the ring-rusty Copano Rickey at Funabashi two back, he most recently finished second to him in the JBC Classic. He flashed home from far back to grab second from Hokko Tarumae, and trainer Noboru Takagi hopes that the French Deputy gelding will secure a better early position.

Others who prepped in the JBC Classic are Happy Sprint (fifth), who’s found life tougher since leaving his own age group; Nihonpiro Ours (eighth), whose form doesn’t suggest he’ll recapture his crown from 2012; and Grand City (10th), who’ll prefer the venue switch to Chukyo. As the runner-up in the past two runnings of the Tokai TV Hai Tokai over this track and trip (to Copano Rickey and Nihonpiro Ours), he could be an exotics bomb.

The mare Sambista rounds out the contestants last seen on JBC Day, where she lost her Ladies’ Classic title to the younger White Fugue. A well-beaten second, she’ll need to do better to improve on her fourth in last year’s Champions Cup.

Grape Brandy, the 2013 February hero, has mostly struggled since his injury a couple of years ago. But he showed something of his old spark when just missing in the August 16 Elm (G3), and his fifth behind Nonkono Yume in the Musashino could bring him on.

Finally, a salute to the nine-year-old Wonder Acute, who finished a closing third in the October 12 Mile Championship Nambu Hai. While it’s asking a bit much to think he can better his trio of seconds in the 2011-13 Japan Cup Dirt, the son of Charismatic annexed another major – the Kashiwa Kinen -- as recently as May 5. Perhaps the change to a mile prep can sharpen him up a bit more.