Sunday's Japan Cup, worth $5.8 million plus potential bonus money, drew three foreigners to take on a somewhat depleted home team.
The North American 2-year-old races are keyed by the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot and the $500,000 Delta Downs Princess. Under the former graded stakes earnings system, the Grade III races formerly were a virtual "get in free" card for the winners for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. In the new points system, the money is more the thing.
Additionally, Churchill Downs Saturday offers the Grade III River City Handicap at 9 furlongs on the turf. Saturday's four-race New York Stallion Series at Aqueduct includes juvenile events for 2-year-old state-breds.
And give thanks a few days early: Fair Grounds reopens Saturday with the $60,000 Mr. Sulu Stakes on the grass, starting us off at warp speed through the winter and on to the Louisiana Derby next spring.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Back to Tokyo Race Course, virtually in the shadow of majestic Mount Fuji.
Joshua Tree heads the three-horse foreign contingent for Sunday's Group 1 Japan Cup, run at 2,400 meters or about 1 1/2 miles over the Tokyo Race Course grass. As a result of his recent victory in the Grade I Canadian International at Woodbine, the 6-year-old son of Montjeu stands to earn nearly $900,000 in incentive bonus money in addition to the winner's share of the purse should he top the field. Joshua Tree, trained by Ed Dunlop and ridden by John Murtagh, finished 10th in the Japan Cup as a 3-year-old. In Thursday's barrier draw, Joshua Tree got far outside post in a field of 17.
Simenon, a 6-year-old Marju gelding, comes to Japan after an Australian visit that found him third in the Group 1 Herbert Power Stakes at Caulfield and a good fourth in the Group 1 Melbourne Cup in his last start. At Royal Ascot this summer, he just missed to Her Majesty the Queen's Cartier Award winner, Estimate, in the Group 1 Gold Cup. Richard Hughes has the mount for trainer William Mullins and will start from the No. 14 gate.
From France, also via Australia, comes Dunaden. The 7-year-old international warrior is best known for winning both the Melbourne Cup and the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase two years ago. In this year's edition of the Melbourne Cup, he toted the top weight and had traffic issues, resulting in an 11th-place finish. Earlier this year, he finished second to Novellist in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and second to St Nicholas Abbey in the Group 21 Coronation Cup at Ascot. James Spencer will ride for trainer Mikel Delzangles. Dunaden drew No. 10.
The local field is shortened by the absence of Orfevre and Kizuna, who are recovering from their exertion on Arc weekend in Paris. Orfevre twice has finished second in the Arc and Kizuna was fourth in this year's running of the French setpiece.
Their defections leave the favorite's role to last year's Japan Cup winner, the 4-year-old Deep Impact filly Gentildonna. But she has not won this year in three earlier starts, starting with a courageous second to St Nicholas Abbey in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night at Meydan. That string of defeats resulted in a switch of jockeys from Yusanari Iwata to Ryan Moore.
"I think if we can get a good run like we did last year, we'll be in for a good race," trainer Sei Ishizaka said Thursday. "We've had a string of losses. But she's run well."
There are some extreme long shots among the 13 Japanese runners but Gold Ship and Eishin Flash regarded as likely contenders.
Andrew Stringer, assistant trainer for Joshua Tree, dismissed any perception this year's field is light. He noted that when Joshua Tree ran 10th in 2010, the horse that finished ninth was Cirrus des Aigles, who last year developed into the world's top-rated horse and is headed for the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup in two week's time. Immediately in front of him in the 2010 Japan Cup was Eishin Flash, among this year's favorites.
"You don't win a bad Japan Cup," Stringer said. "It's a real top-class horse race in the world."
Some really tough fields are taking shape for the four Group 1 events comprising Longines Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin Dec. 8. Selected runners include:
The Longines Hong Kong Cup, at 2,000 meters includes Frances' Cirrus Des Aigles, the world's top-rated runner at the start of the year; Little Mike from the United States, Neatico from Germany and a "home team" including Military Attack, Akeed Mofeed and Endowing.
The Longines Hong Kong Vase, at 2,400 meters, has three Group 1 winners from Germany -- Feuerblitz, Seismos and Nymphea -- among those selected. Japan Cup contender Simenon also is on the list, along with Dandino and the globetrotting Red Cadeaux. The Fugue, a 4-year-old filly trained in England by John Gosden, will be among the fancied.
The Longines Mile has Group 1 runners from Australia, France, England and Ireland, including Moonlight Cloud and Sky Lantern. Xtension and Dan Excell head the Hong Kong contingent.
The Longines Sprint at 1,200 meters looks like a showdown between Japan's Lord Kanaloa and Hong Kong's Lucky Nine, though the latter is coming off a sub-par showing in Australia. Sole Power and Slade Power are in from Ireland.
For Saturday's $1 million, Grade III Delta Downs Jackpot, Rise Up, Mighty Brown and Flat Gone, the 1-2-3 finishers in the local Jean Lafitte Stakes, all are back. Rise Up earlier won the Mountaineer Juvenile. They will face winners from other venues in the race Goldencents used last year as a springboard to fame as a 3-year-old.
Casiguapo, a Sightseeing colt, broke his maiden at Calder, then finished second in the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga, albeit 9 1/2 lengths behind Strong Mandate. He followed that with a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont last month, though he again was well up the track from the winner that day. From Woodbine comes Big Bazinga, who won there at first asking, then finished second in the Grade III Grey Stakes. Rosie Napravnik will visit to ride Big Bazinga for trainer Sandra Dominguez.
Whyareuawesome finished second in the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity in September but then was out of the money in two starts at Keeneland. The Whywhywhy gelding will be trying dirt for the first time. Coastline, a Speightstwon colt, has won at both Keeneland and Churchill Downs and is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's race. Trainer Doug O'Neill ships in Rum Point, who broke his maiden at Del Mar but since has finished out of the money in three straight Grade I starts, most lately the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he got home next-last of 13.
Elsewhere among the young set:
Better Bet took a while to get going but won the Golden State Juvenile at Santa Anita in his last outing -- enough to make him the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood Park. The race, over 1 1/16 miles of all-weather track, drew a field of eight, also including a two-horse Jerry Hollendorfer entry headed by Tamarando. The latter won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity in September but then finished third in two starts on the dirt at Santa Anita.
Chapman is the morning-line favorite among 14 for Saturday's Great White Way Division of the Stallion Stakes. The gelded son of Stanislavsky has never been out of the money in eight starts and finished a close second in the 6 1/2-furlongs Stallion Stakes even at Belmont Park in May. Comandante and Smooth Bert also are worth a look in the 6-furlongs heat.
On the grass, nine are set for Sunday's $100,000 Smiling and Dancin Stakes at 1 mile at Belmont Park including an entry. It's a promising bunch with no standouts. Still, watch for the Shug McGaughey-trained Phipps Stable homebred Pulpit colt Mr Speaker and for Cabo Cat, a Kitten's Joy colt handled by Mark Hennig.
Other state-bred events include Saturday's $150,000 Louisiana Legacy at Delta Downs, Saturday's $140,000 Eddy County Stakes at 1 mile on the Zia Park main course in New Mexico.
Saturday's $500,000, Grade III Delta Downs Princess finds as the morning-line favorite Miss Behaviour, who won the Grade II Matron at Belmont Park, then finished second in the Sharp Cat Stakes, also at Belmont. Concave won the Grade II Sorrento at Del Mar, then was third in the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Bahnah won the Grade III Schuylerville at Saratoga but then ran out of the money in the Grade I Spinaway at the Spa and a subsequent event at Delta. Seven are set to go in the Princess.
Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Glorious Song Stakes at Woodbine attracted a balanced field of eight. All prominent on the morning line are Zensational Bunny, Norquay, Executive Allure and Spring Likeacobra.
In other races for the 2-year-old fillies:
Miss Narcissist is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Fifth Avenue Division of the Stallion Stakes. The Freud filly has won two straight, including a dominating victory in the Joseph A. Gimma Stakes at Belmont Park in her last outing. Skye Saratoga was equally impressive in securing her first win last time out at the Big A. Six others are set for the 6-furlongs event.
Other state-bred events include the $150,000 Louisiana Jewel at Delta Downs.
Broadway Empire is the odds-on choice in Sunday's $200,000 Zia Park Derby. The Empire Maker gelding had won three straight, including the Grade III Canadian Derby at Northlands Park and the Grade Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park before fading to finish ninth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile earlier this month. Rivals include Show Some Magic, who finished second to Governor Charlie in the Sunland Derby in the spring, and the well-bred Carve, who is looking to make a move forward.
Sunday's $300,000 Zia Park Oaks in New Mexico brought some visitors from out of town. Unusual Way and Oscar Party visit from California after some near-misses in graded stakes. Sister Ginger comes from Oklahoma with multiple stakes wins to her credit. Gold Medal Dancer and I Am Miss Brown also come from Remington Park for trainer Donnie Von Hemel.
A full field is in prospect for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III River City Handicap at 9 furlongs on the grass. A balanced field finds Coalport, Daddy Nose Best, Grand Arch, Keep Up and Villandry all among those meriting consideration. Keep Up won this race last year.
While Saturday's 2-year-old races hog the spotlight, the card also includes the $150,000 Delta Mile, the $150,000 Treasure Chest at 1 mile for fillies and mares and a pair of $75,00 heats for 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs.