Sword Dancer Stakes international scouting report: Japan

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August 26th, 2021

Yet to return to the heights of his 2019 sophomore campaign, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Japan nevertheless brings respectable form to Saturday’s “Win and You’re In” Sword Dancer S. (G1) at Saratoga.

On the line is a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but Japan also will test his aptitude for the tight inner turf.

Race dynamics will matter at least as much as his intrinsic ability — something a couple past O’Brien favorites have learned all too well at the Spa. Idaho flopped in the 2017 Sword Dancer at odds of 1.45-1, and just three weeks ago, the 1.15-1 Bolshoi Ballet tired to fourth in the Saratoga Derby (G1). Both paid the price for being involved in a contested the pace.

Japan doesn’t figure to incur the same liability, with Tribhuvan and Channel Maker sure to go forward, but he could face another sort of tactical challenge.

Japan’s pedigree

As his 1.3 million guineas (more than $1.8 million) yearling price at Tattersalls October implies, Japan is an exquisitely bred son of Galileo. He is a full brother to dual classic-placed Secret Gesture, who was demoted from her victory in the 2015 Beverly D. S. (G1), and multiple Group 1 winner Mogul, his Ballydoyle stablemate who was also under consideration for the Sword Dancer.

The accomplished siblings are out of the Danehill mare Shastye, a half-sister to 1998 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner Sagamix, as well as fellow French Group 1 victor Sagacity. Shastye is also a half to Group 2 victress Sage et Jolie, dam of Group 1 winner Sageburg.

Japan at age two and three

As a juvenile, Japan stamped himself as potentially special when he produced a rousing rally in the nick of time in the 2018 Beresford S. (G2). He ranked among the leading antepost favorites for the 2019 Derby S. (G1), but an early season fever meant he was not ready to return until the Dante S. (G2). Japan needed that race badly as a tightener, and his comeback fourth brought him on for Epsom.

Ideally, Japan would have had two prep runs to set him up for the Derby. That remains a what-might-have-been, as he came up just short at Epsom, with an agonizing third. Japan dominated his next outing, the King Edward VII S. (G2) at Royal Ascot, where he swept from well off a demanding pace. He wheeled back for the Grand Prix de Paris (G1) and asserted again.

Japan followed up with what remains the signature performance of his career — the 2019 International S. (G1) over older horses. In a stretch-long battle, he just outdueled Crystal Ocean, who came in off a heartbreaker against Enable in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth S. (G1). Although that International was partly a tale of trips and circumstances, Japan deserves credit, as a 1 1/2-mile performer on the cut back to about 1 5/16 miles.

Back up to his usual distance for that fall’s Arc, Japan finished a commendable fourth, behind Waldgeist, Enable, and Sottsass. He loomed at one stage, flattened, but still pulled six lengths clear of Magical (who was spent chasing the pace) on very soft going.

Japan as an older horse

For the past two seasons, Japan has tried to regain that lofty form, without much success. He went winless in a forgettable 2020 campaign, with his strongest effort a third to Ghaiyyath and Enable in the Eclipse S. (G1). A stone bruise was later found to be bothering him when eased home last of three, behind Enable, in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth, and he was still well below form in his two remaining starts of the year.

Japan signaled a turnaround this year, with a victory in his first race of the season, off a nearly seven-month layoff. The May 6 Ormonde S. (G3), around the tight, left-handed circuit at Chester, offers clues about how he might handle Saratoga.

Upped in trip to 1 5/8 miles, he drafted just behind the leaders, then had to respond quickly when his principal rival, Trueshan, made a bold move. Japan bravely threaded the needle on the rail, then angled out and nabbed Trueshan, who conceded five pounds.

Trueshan has since won the Goodwood Cup (G1), and Ormonde third-place finisher Sonnyboyliston just scored in the valuable Ebor H., ahead of a possible Melbourne Cup (G1) venture. The Ormonde featured classy operators who stay farther, and Japan was entitled to have the superior kick in that company. He’ll have to be as tactically adept at the Spa, against quicker rivals than he found at Chester.

Japan wasn’t able to build on the Ormonde in his next two, against proper 1 1/2-mile performers, albeit on ground softer than preferable. A distant third, behind Pyledriver and Al Aasy, in the June 4 Coronation Cup (G1) at a rain-soaked Epsom, he also finished sixth, 15 days later, in Royal Ascot’s Hardwicke S. (G2), to high-class filly Wonderful Tonight.

In a cut back to 1 1/8 miles for the July 15 Meld S. (G3) at Leopardstown, Japan was back on good ground, but he had to deal with a few sharper types, and he made a well-timed bid to beat them to the punch. Japan just held on from Maker of Kings, who entered off a career-best score in the Amethyst S. (G3), and Sinawann, who exited the same race that produced next-out Saratoga Derby (G1) upsetter State of Rest.

His Meld is an encouraging sign for a trip to Saratoga, where tactical speed will come in handy. The in-form Tribhuvan and defending champion Channel Maker will be the principal pace players, and Japan has the ability to camp within range.

The question is whether they can spurt away from Japan on the final turn. If so, Japan would have a more difficult task to outsprint them than he did to reel in the marathoner Trueshan at Chester. But if Japan can hang close enough, he’s always up for a fight.

The Saturday forecast at Saratoga suggests the likelihood of rain. Japan can handle a degree of give in the ground, although he'd prefer it doesn't get soft. He'd appreciate it most of all if Tribhuvan and Channel Maker slug it out early and turn the Sword Dancer into a test of stamina.