Lani faces half-brother and stablemate Awardee in tough Champions Cup

Profile Picture: Jen Caldwell

Jen Caldwell

December 3rd, 2016

U.A.E. Derby (UAE-G2) hero and Belmont Stakes (G1) third-placer Lani will be sporting blinkers when he lines up Sunday at Chukyo Racecourse in the Champions Cup (Jpn-G1), formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt.

The 1800-meter contest is in its third year under the name Champions Cup but this will be the 17th overall running of the prestigious race. It drew 15 runners, just one shy of a full field, and Lani will break from post 7.

Trained by Mikio Matsunaga, Lani will be ridden by Hiroyuki Uchida for the third straight time in the Champions Cup. The pair teamed up after Lani’s bid in the Triple Crown under Yutaka Take, finishing third on October 23 in the Brazil Cup at Tokyo Racecourse.

Next up came the Miyako Stakes (Jpn-G3) at Kyoto Racecourse, but the duo could only muster a 13th-place effort in that November 6 contest.

“I think there were many reasons for his loss in the Miyako Stakes – perhaps, it may have been the inside draw, but around the third, fourth corner, his form was out of sync,” Matsunaga said. “If he’d been cued to move after he had changed leads it may have made a difference, but it was no good rushing him the way he was.

“He always has been a rather difficult horse to ride and he wasn’t in a mood to race last time. He came out of the race fine because he never really raced. And he easily handled all the work we gave him. Everything is in order.

“As usual, we raced him on the dirt course under jockey Hiroyuki Uchida and had him pick up the pace on the second lap. He looked good. We started his fall campaign from the Brazil Cup and this race is his third start, as planned. He’s used to racing to the left, so the main concern is whether he feels like it racing or not.”

Among those Lani faces on Sunday is his older half-brother and fellow Matsunaga trainee Awardee.

That six-year-old son of Jungle Pocket brings a perfect four-for-four 2016 record into the Champions Cup. He started off the year on March 17 with a 12-length romp in the Nagoya Daishoten at Nagoya. Awardee followed that with close scores in the April 16 Antares Stakes (Jpn-G3) at Hanshin, Nippon TV Hai at Funabashi on September 28 and JBC Classic at Kawasaki last out on November 3.

“In the JBC Classic, it was if he were let loose to go head to head with his biggest rivals and in the end he held them off and pulled away,” Matsunaga said of the three-quarter length victory. “It was a very strong race. And, I think the setting was right – being at Kawasaki with the tight turns of the 2,100 meters worked in his favor.

“After that, we aimed for this race and all has gone according to plan. In his work on Novenber 23, he ran with another horse starting ahead of him. He took the bit well and ran solidly all the way to the end. It was a good strong workout and his action was good.

“Now with the move to the Chukyo 1,800 meters, I think the lap times will be totally different from his last race. I don’t know whether he’ll be able to handle that well or not. I’m looking forward to it but we’re considering him a challenger.”

Awardee has had Yutaka Take aboard all season and retains the champion jockey for Sunday’s event from the 2 post.

Also of note in the Champions Cup is multiple Japanese Grade 1 winner Copano Rickey, who makes his third appearance in this race after finishing seventh in last year’s running and 12th in the 2014 edition.

Trained by Akira Murayama, Copano Rickey strung together three straight wins before finishing fifth last out in the JBC Classic as the defending champion. He’ll break from post 11 with Christophe Lemaire taking the reins.

“He was keen in the JBC Classic because the pace was slow. He was pulling at points and not well-balanced in the first half. So, since he hadn’t had a smooth run, he didn’t have enough left over to quicken in the stretch,” Murayama explained. “We gave him a bit of time off after that mainly to give him a change of pace.

“Then, on November 23 we worked him and two other horses together over the woodchip course. We had this horse start behind the others on the inside, chase, catch and pass them. He moved well and I’d say it was a good place to be in aiming at this race.

“I think we’ll just breeze him this week and that would be good enough heading into the race. We’ve been unable to get good results in this race but with each race he has shown signs of being mentally more mature. He has won before at Chukyo, so I picture him getting a good start like he had in his winning run in the Tokai Stakes (Jpn-G2) and see him run at his own pace. If he can do that I think we’ll be good.”

Lightly raced Gold Dream also has a shot off a runner-up effort in the Tokyo Chunichi Sports Hai Musashino Stakes (Jpn-G3) on a sloppy Tokyo track. The sophomore son of Gold Allure opened his career with three straight scores, including the Hyacinth Stakes, before running second in the Hyogo Championship at Sonoda on May 4.

The Osamu Hirata pupil got back to his winning ways in the June 19 Unicorn Stakes (Jpn-G3) at Tokyo before finishing third in the Japan Dirt Derby on July 13 at Ohi. Gold Dream reunites with Mirco Demuro for the Champions Cup, where they will break from post 12.

“In his last start, the Musashino Stakes, he was blocked in the stretch, but when it opened in front, he accelerated very nicely. It wasn’t enough to catch the front runner, who had aimed to go wire-to-wire, but we now have something to look forward to,” Hirata remarked.

“He’s a strong horse and he recovered quickly from that race. He’s full of energy and on November 23 he clocked 57.4 seconds up the hill course. This week we’d pushed him hard over five furlongs and he clocked 50.8 seconds. The first two races of his career, both wins, were over 1,800 meters. He has stamina, so I’m not worried.

“He’s gotten much better at the break now, so if he starts normally, there shouldn’t be any problem. For sure, the lineup is a strong one, but we have yet to see everything this fellow is capable of. I think he can hold his own in a Grade 1 and I’m looking forward to the race.”

Apollo Kentucky brings a nice neck score in the Miyako Stakes (Jpn-G3) into the Champions Cup for trainer Kenji Yamauchi. The Langfuhr four-year-old captured three straight to kick off 2016 before taking a long break and reappearing October 1 at Hanshin with a third-place run in the Sirius Stakes (Jpn-G3). He ran eighth in the Brazil Cup just 22 days later but got back to the winner’s circle under returning rider Fuma Matsuwaka in the Miyako. The duo will break from post 14.

“He’s a big horse and he had an easy trip in the Miyako Stakes,” Yamauchi said. “If he had had to put the brakes on somewhere, he usually can’t respond easily again. He raced up the outside, was only carrying 56 kg, and because there was no fancy maneuvering called for, it was a good race for him.

“For the Brazil Cup, he may have used up too much early on or maybe we’d been a little too easy on him in morning work, but I can’t figure out what went wrong there. It’s no good if we do the same thing over again, so even though there was only one week in between the two races, last week we worked him hard and we got good results from that.

“For having just had only one full week between races last out, three full weeks in between for this race is just right for this horse. Everything is going well. Having gotten good results over 1,800 meters was a very good experience for him, but this will be his first time at Chukyo and the lineup is different.”

Lani photo courtesy of Churchill Downs/Coady Photography
Awardee, Copano Rickey, Gold Dream & Apollo Kentucky photos courtesy of Japan Racing Association