January 27, 2023

Japan edges Crystal Ocean in Juddmonte International nailbiter

Japan (outside) edges Crystal Ocean in the Juddmonte International (G1) (York Racecourse)

Coolmore and trainer Aidan O’Brien have attempted, but not succeeded, in winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on multiple occasions. Whether they try again at Santa Anita in November remains to be seen, but they now have a qualifier for the lucrative event in the three-year-old Japan, who denied favorite Crystal Ocean by a head in a thrilling renewal of the Juddmonte International (G1) at York on Wednesday.

The third choice in the wagering in both U.S. pools and across the Atlantic, Japan wore down Crystal Ocean in the final yards to claim the top prize under Ryan Moore in a time of 2:07.77 for about 1 1/4 miles on good ground. Japan returned $10.80 in U.S. pools. Elarqam was not far behind in third, with King of Comedy fourth.

It was a record-tying sixth win in the International for O’Brien, equaling the mark held by Sir Michael Stoute, who was narrowly denied a seventh after Crystal Ocean’s defeat.

This was the second race in a row the five-year-old Crystal Ocean has lost in a photo. He missed by a neck to the great mare Enable in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot last month.

Japan has now risen to the top ranks of Europe’s three-year-old colts. Fourth in the Dante (G2) over the same course and trip as the International to start the season and then third by a half-length in the Derby (G1) at Epsom to stablemate Anthony Van Dyck, Japan has since reeled off three straight victories.

Prior to this success, Japan captured the King Edward VI (G2) at Royal Ascot by 4 1/2 lengths, and last out captured the Grand Prix de Paris (G1) over 12 furlongs at Longchamp.

“We knew since France he’d made lovely progress,” O’Brien told Racing TV. “We know he can get a mile and a half, but he has the class for a mile and a quarter.”

That versatility leaves Japan with plenty of options for the remainder of the European season, with races like the 1 1/4-mile Irish Champion (G1) at Leopardstown next month and the 1 1/2-mile Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) at Longchamp in early October as logical targets.

Three of O’Brien’s previous International winners competed in the Classic. Giant’s Causeway narrowly lost the 2000 Classic to Tiznow, Duke of Marmalade ran unplaced in 2008, and Declaration of War finished a close third in 2013 at Santa Anita.

While Japan seems unlikely to be Breeders’ Cup Classic bound, he’s at least given the middle-distance performers of Europe’s classic generation a much-needed form boost against their elders.