Japan Cup Thoughts

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 29th, 2014

As a supplement to my field story on the Japan Cup, here are a few thoughts on the "Big Three" -- Gentildonna, Harp Star and Just a Way -- and the outsider who intrigues me most, Epiphaneia.

Any discussion must begin with Gentildonna, the two-time defending champion who will put up a mighty fight to retain her crown. Yet all things considered, this could be the toughest of her Japan Cup assignments.

Her first victory in 2012 came after a bruising battle with then-reigning Japanese Horse of the Year Orfevre, who was coming off a near-miss in the Arc. Although edging Orfevre was quite a feat, Gentildonna was receiving a hefty nine-pound weight concession as a three-year-old filly. And in a display of her fighting spirit, she unceremoniously knocked Orfevre off stride en route to besting him in a photo. Gentildonna wreaked far more havoc on Orfevre than Buena Vista's relatively mild infraction that had gotten her disqualified back in the 2010 Japan Cup.

Last year, Gentildonna wasn't quite at her best for her title defense, but received a stroke of luck: her chief competitors were absent. Orfevre and Kizuna both skipped the Tokyo feature after their fine efforts in defeat in the Arc. Gold Ship was physically there, but in one of his infamous moods, and was mentally absent in a non-effort. Even so, and with the benefit of a superb Ryan Moore ride, Gentildonna just lasted by a desperate nose from Denim and Ruby, in an exacta for their sire Deep Impact. While I've liked Denim and Ruby, she hasn't fulfilled her potential and has the profile of a perennial bridesmaid. The 2013 Japan Cup therefore didn't take as much winning.

Now Gentildonna is by all accounts much stronger at the mature age of five, so we're likely to see a far better performance. But that will also be required against considerably stiffer opposition.

Harp Star now gets in with the lightest weight, and she has the credentials to emulate Gentildonna and become just the second sophomore filly to win the Japan Cup. Of course I'd say that, since Harp Star was my top pick in the Arc!

While Harp Star's ferocious late charge was successful in the Oka Sho (Japanese One Thousand Guineas), and fell just short in the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks), it was her victory in the Sapporo Kinen that made me a believer. She had endured a problematic summer after exiting the Oaks with a hoof injury (thanks to a shoe dangling semi-detached during the race), and entered her first test against older males some way below her peak condition. Nevertheless, Harp Star beat an in-form, mind-on-the-job Gold Ship fair and square.

More than just the high level of form, Harp Star employed much more sensible tactics. Instead of coming from the clouds, she advanced into a better position on the far turn and delivered the coup de grace.

Having engineered that kind of trip over a right-handed course in preparation for the Arc, surely Harp Star would adopt a similar passage at Longchamp -- but she didn't. She had literally no chance trying to rally from last in the straight, yet she flew home for sixth. While I wouldn't be rash enough to say that she could have beaten Treve, Harp Star would at least have been in the mix for the minor awards.

As the only Japanese three-year-old filly to attempt the Arc, Harp Star is likewise in uncharted waters in coming back home for a tilt at the Japan Cup. The travel does give cause for concern, but trainer Hiroyoshi Matsuda has sounded a confident tone. He would know, having won this race twice before with Admire Moon (2007) and Buena Vista (2011). He's suggested that she'll revert to something more like her Sapporo tactics too, which needless to say would be a great help.

Harp Star is also by Deep Impact, who rebounded from a bitter loss in the Arc to capture the 2006 Japan Cup. There's precedent.

But by that same logic, fellow Arc also-ran Just a Way looms as perhaps the best value in the Japan Cup. The world's top-rated horse was set a virtually impossible task in the Arc for a different reason: he lined up without the benefit of a prep, a pretty lethal statistic, and wasn't disgraced in eighth. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the Arc was effectively his prep for the Japan Cup, and he's entitled to move forward.

There's no compelling reason to think that Just a Way won't handle the about 1 1/2-mile trip. The late-developing son of Heart's Cry wasn't ready to cope in the 2012 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), but he's an entirely different animal now. Just look at the way he scorched four lengths clear of Gentildonna in last year's Tenno Sho (Autumn) and annihilated the Dubai Duty Free on World Cup night.

Just a Way therefore offers a parallel -- albeit loose -- with 2007 Japan Cup hero Admire Moon. Both were unplaced in the Japanese Derby, later went on to win the Duty Free, and were unproven at the trip going into the Japan Cup.

Finally, I'll put in a good word for Epiphaneia. Like Gentildonna, he exits a useful loss in the most productive prep, the Tenno Sho Autumn, and we might not have seen his best yet. I've been a supporter of his for some time because he's out of Japanese champion Cesario, whom American fans remember best for her brilliant victory in the 2005 American Oaks Invitational at Hollywood.

Trained like his dam by Katsuhiko Sumii, Epiphaneia has collateral formlines with the 2013 Arc, through fourth-placer Kizuna. There hasn't been much between the pair. Epiphaneia was just mugged by Kizuna in last year's Japanese Derby, and he was a fast-finishing third to the same rival in their comeback in April's Sankei Osaka Hai.

Epiphaneia has been competing respectably at about 1 1/4 miles this season, and he returns to this much more congenial trip for the first time since his emphatic score in last fall's Kobe Shimbun Hai. That was the prelude to his five-length domination of the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) on soft ground. Saturday's rain was likely welcome, as is the addition of Christophe Soumillon.