Getting ready for the race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

December 6th, 2014

Overnight Saturday U.S. time, I'll be tuning in for the race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt, and interested to see whether Hokko Tarumae can turn the tables on the clear favorite, Copano Rickey. Now rebranded as the Champions Cup, the about 1 1/8-mile dirt race was also moved from its recent home of Hanshin to the left-handed track of Chukyo, in hopes of enticing more participation from North America.

But the biggest disincentive for us to cross the Pacific is the fact that internationals have a woeful record in this race. The lone foreign-trained winner remains Fleetstreet Dancer, who prevailed by a nose in the slop for Doug O'Neill. That came in 2003, when the Japan Cup Dirt was still held at about 1 5/16 miles at Tokyo. Since then, such accomplished Americans as Lava Man, Student Council, Tizway and most recently Pants on Fire have all flopped.

That stat has not deterred Imperative, the one U.S.-based hopeful to take up the challenge this time. Last seen checking in ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Bernardini gelding cuts back to perhaps his best distance, as implied by his victory in the Charles Town Classic and near-miss in the San Antonio early this year. And he was also a distant third to champion Shared Belief and Toast of New York (the BC Classic near-misser) in the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic.

Yet on top of the specter of past U.S. failures, there are a couple of additional concerns. Trainer George Papaprodromou has commented a couple of times about the Chukyo track, observing that it's "a little too loose," "kind of sandy and a little too deep," and preferring that it would be tighter. The closer can't fall too far back on a track that's tended to play kindly to on-the-pace types either (as dissected on, so Papaprodromou has indicated that he'll try to settle within better striking range early. Imperative has drawn the rail with Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux.

The advantage must be considered to rest with the leading Japanese contenders. Copano Rickey has deservedly garnered favoritism on the strength of three big wins this campaign. Insulted as the 271-1 longest shot on the board in the February Stakes at Tokyo, he gained the best revenge by springing the upset over Hokko Tarumae and 2013 Japan Cup Dirt winner Belshazzar.

With the benefit of hindsight, those odds were patently unfair for a horse who had been on the upswing before sustaining a fracture last summer. Copano Rickey stamped himself as one on the rise with his six-length romp in the Hyogo Championship in May of 2013, only to be sidelined by injury. He was unplaced in his first two starts off the layoff, but primed to go in his third try, the February.

Copano Rickey has gone on to win two of his ensuing three. The son of Gold Allure rolled from off the pace in the May 5 Kashiwa Kinen at left-handed Funabashi, making a sweeping move on the outside and handily drawing clear by two lengths. He suffered his only loss of 2014 next time in the June 25 Teio Sho at a sloppy Ohi, where he was overtaken in the stretch by the old warhorse Wonder Acute and settled for second. Returning in the November 3 JBC Classic at Morioka, Copano Rickey scooted to the early lead from post 15, appeared to be challenged turning for home, but was only "playing possum" as he stormed right away again in track-record time of 2:00.8 for about 1 1/4 miles.

The tactically versatile Copano Rickey is once again drawn toward the outside in post 14, but connections have said that he won't repeat his front-running gambit here, in light of the rising ground they'll encounter right out of the gate.

Hokko Tarumae has been beaten by Copano Rickey in both the February and the JBC Classic, but this could prove a better spot for the five-time Grade 1 star. Third in the past two runnings of the Japan Cup Dirt (last year as the favorite), the son of King Kamehameha was parked out wide from post 15 in the February Stakes. He gave game and persistent chase, coming up a half-length short to the perfect-trip Copano Rickey.

That was Hokko Tarumae's prep for the March 29 Dubai World Cup, which ended up being a debacle as he trailed home last of 16. He came down with "stress-induced colitis" and underwent treatment while still in Dubai.

Once back home in Japan, Hokko Tarumae was given plenty of time to regroup and wasn't seen again until his title defense in the JBC Classic. Despite just resuming from a seven-month layoff, the bay traveled as well as ever in third, and ranged up three wide to challenge Copano Rickey. Then his lack of fitness understandably told. Hokko Tarumae nevertheless boxed on well for the duration and crossed the wire fourth in a perfect tune-up. He's sure to improve off that tightener, and a return to his old form would see him as a big threat here.

It would be a crime to overlook Wonder Acute, the runner-up in three consecutive runnings of this race. Now eight years old, the son of Charismatic has been as honest and genuine as they come, and he is the only one who has found a way to beat Copano Rickey this season.

One serious contender who's likely to go off at higher odds here than in Japan is Roman Legend, the beaten favorite in the 2012 Japan Cup Dirt who was well below form in 2013. By Special Week and out of Grade 3 heroine Personal Legend, Roman Legend was off for seven months with a fractured hind leg. He made a victorious comeback in the July 27 Elm Stakes at Sapporo, showing great heart to outduel an in-form Kurino Star O and score a repeat win. Unraced since, Roman Legend is worth a flyer, considering that he set a Chukyo track record over the Champions Cup distance here in the summer of 2012.