Japan Cup preview: will the home team keep the trophy for the 10th straight year?

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 29th, 2015

It’s been 10 years since a foreign shipper upstaged the Japan Cup (G1), and even then, British-based Alkaased just lasted by a flared nostril from Japan’s hard-charging Heart’s Cry.

With the Japanese team reduced by injuries this year, there’s a current of thought that the internationals have a better opportunity in Sunday’s renewal. But I wouldn’t push that point too far, because it’s a relative notion – “better” in the sense of plausible rather than the doubtful chances they’ve had in recent years. The international squad is likewise missing its marquee name, Flintshire, who’s bound for Hong Kong instead. And Japan has quite a depth chart.

The streaking Lovely Day comes off a victory in the key prep, the November 1 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) over this Tokyo course. Outstanding sophomore filly Mikki Queen (pictured right) is a dual classic winner, including the Japanese Oaks at the track and about 1 1/2-mile trip. Gold Ship, a former Japanese champion whose talent is matched only by his maddening mood swings; Shonan Pandora, a classic heroine of 2014; Last Impact, who has lured Ryan Moore aboard; last year’s Japanese Derby (G1) victor One and Only and fellow 2014 classic performers Sounds of Earth and Admire Deus are other contenders to know.

The European most likely to threaten the Japanese establishment is Grand Prix de Paris (G1) winner Erupt, last seen finishing a creditable fifth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). The Niarchos Family homebred skipped the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) to focus on this target, and that careful planning on the part of trainer Francis-Henry Graffard could serve him very well here. A Dubawi colt with upside, Erupt brings a commendable four-for-six lifetime mark. He’ll want quicker conditions.

German Group 1 scorers Ito and Nightflower have a bit to prove at this level of international competition, and they’re poorly drawn in posts 14 and 18, respectively. Ito is a bold front-running type, but that’s tough to pull off at Tokyo – unless the ground turns up soft. Ascot Gold Cup (G1) winner Trip to Paris has a far bigger question to answer as a marathoner facing world-class rivals at a trip on the short side for him. If he can exceed expectations, it would be a huge morale boost for trainer Ed Dunlop and his yard, saddened by the recent loss of Red Cadeaux. (More details on the European quartet in the Japan Cup can be found in this post.)

The Japanese market revolves around the home team, with the top five betting choices all defending their turf. Lovely Day (left) ranks as the favorite on the basis of his four-race winning spree. Once a promising juvenile, he didn’t get his act together until this five-year-old campaign, but he’s in career form at present. Indeed, his only losses of 2015 have come over much longer trips. But for those two misadventures early in the year, Lovely Day would boast a six-race skein. While the Yasutoshi Ikee charge doesn’t look particularly flashy, he’s able to secure good early position and thereby gets a decisive jump on the deep closers. Lovely Day captured the early summer highlight, the Takarazuka Kinen (G1), and kicked off the fall with a score in the October 12 Kyoto Daishoten (G2) over Sounds of Earth. Next came the about 1 1/4-mile Tenno Sho Autumn, where he defeated no fewer than seven Japan Cup rivals. They’ll plot to gain revenge over the extra two furlongs here.

But perhaps the key question surrounding Lovely Day is, can he really spot his stablemate Mikki Queen nine pounds? The nation’s star three-year-old filly gets all the allowances due her age and sex, making her a massive threat. One of a trio in this race by the great Deep Impact, Mikki Queen has yet to finish worse than second in her seven career starts. She can put herself behind the proverbial eight-ball with a poor start, as happened two back in the September 20 Sho Rose (G2). But if she doesn’t leave herself too much to do, her late kick is highly effective. She mowed down one-time Arc hope Rouge Buck in the May 24 Japanese Oaks here, in her only attempt at this distance, and last time out, she made it a classic double in the October 18 Shuka Sho (G1).

Gold Ship (right) calls to mind Winston Churchill’s famous quip about Russia: he’s a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The winner of two-thirds of Japan’s Triple Crown as well as the prestigious Arima Kinen (G1) during his championship season in 2012, he’s more than good enough to win a Japan Cup. But the temperamental gray just won’t exert himself if he’s annoyed or out of sorts, which is why he bombed when trying the 2013 edition of this race. Gold Ship has often saved his best for Hanshin, completing a three-peat in the Hanshin Daishoten (G2) and winning back-to-back Takarazuka Kinens.

Yet even at Hanshin, Gold Ship has cost himself. His infamous psychology was on display in his three-peat bid in the June 28 Takarazuka Kinen. Irritated in the starting gate, he began to rear as the latch was sprung, missed the break by a number of lengths, and never got involved. Trainer Naosuke Sugai has been working with him in hopes of having him on his best behavior. It’s anyone’s guess how Gold Ship will react amid the hubbub of raceday, and this comeback is a stepping stone to his grand finale in the Arima Kinen. Through it all, his fans have been remarkably loyal, and he’s still the second choice.

Sounds of Earth, fifth choice at latest report from Japan, could offer better value in North America and rates as a live longshot. A close second in both the 2014 Japanese St Leger (G1) and Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), he returned from a five-month layoff to finish a bang-up second to Lovely Day in the Kyoto Daishoten.

Of the seven exiting a loss to Lovely Day in the Tenno Sho Autumn, the most intriguing are Deep Impact’s offspring Shonan Pandora and Last Impact.

Shonan Pandora (left) rallied out wide for an eye-catching fourth, beaten a little more than a length, while clocking the co-fastest final three furlongs in :33.4. The four-year-old filly, who scored a breakthrough in last fall’s Shuka Sho, steps up to this distance for the first time. But in light of her success in the about 1 3/8-mile Sankei Sho All Comers (G2) back in September, where she beat males as well as the subsequent top two in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1), Shonan Pandora figures to benefit from the added ground. The concern is that she’s saddled with another unfavorable post – 15, the same one that likely contributed to her loss in the Tenno Sho Autumn. She’d cope with a rain-affected track.

Last Impact, 12th after bouncing into the rail in the Tenno Sho Autumn, hopes to recapture his form from last fall. At this time a year ago, he was racking up consecutive Grade 2 victories in the Kyoto Daishoten and Kinko Sho (the latter in record time at Chukyo). Winless in his five ensuing starts, he’s nevertheless caught the eye of Ryan Moore. The all-world ace solicited the ride, and his judgment is very much worth noting.

The others who prepped in the Tenno Sho Autumn are Pelusa, seventh, and the oldest horse here aged eight; Admire Deus, 11th in his first start back from injury, but unfortunately handed post 17 here; Curren Mirotic, 13th; Derby Fizz, 15th; and One and Only, a disappointing 16th. One and Only has often disappointed since his victory in the 2014 Japanese Derby at this course and distance, and his follow-up win in the Kobe Shimbun Hai. But his third in the March 28 Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) is a solid piece of form that would put him right in the mix, and he’d be no shock if he runs back to that.

Hit the Target would be an even bigger surprise than his 25-1 upset of the Meguro Kinen (G2), while Shonan Bach and Jungle Cruise are taking a steep class hike.

All photos copyright, and courtesy of, Japan Racing Association.