December 2, 2023

Contrail aims to crown career in Japan Cup

Triple Crown champ Contrail dominated the 2020 Japanese Derby (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Fresh off a ground-breaking Breeders’ Cup double with Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine, trainer Yoshito Yahagi hopes to fill another lacuna on his resume in Sunday’s $6.1 million Japan Cup (G1). His stable star Contrail will try to hit a high note in his swan song at Tokyo. The 2020 Japanese Triple Crown champion tops an 18-strong field, including the Aidan O’Brien pair of Broome and Japan.

Japan Cup (G1) – Race 12 (1:40 a.m. ET)

Contrail will try to improve on his runner-up effort in last year’s Japan Cup, where the great Almond Eye handed the colt his first career loss. He had retained a perfect record through the classics, emulating Symboli Rudolf (1984), and his own legendary sire Deep Impact (2005), as only the third unbeaten Japanese Triple Crown winner.

But Contrail’s four-year-old season has been more frustrating than rewarding, as he settled for placings in just two racecourse appearances. In his comeback in the Apr. 4 Osaka Hai (G1), a yielding Hanshin course lifted Lei Papale to a front-running upset, and Contrail labored in third.

That effort exacted such a toll that he wasn’t seen again until the Oct. 31 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). Contrail was noticeably restless in the gate, got off to an awkward start, and couldn’t peg back star sophomore Efforia. Yet Contrail delivered a field-best final 600 meters in :33.0 on this course, and the stretch-out to about 1 1/2 miles should bring out the best in him.

The Tenno Sho Autumn, typically a key race for the Japan Cup, just produced the winner of the Nov. 21 Mile Championship (G1). Champion mare Gran Alegria couldn’t quite stay the about 1 1/4 miles of the Tenno Sho, finishing third, but she rebounded by successfully defending her title in the metric mile prize.

Yahagi was alluding to Gran Alegria, as well as Efforia’s stature in a terrific classic generation, in his comments on the depth of the Tenno Sho. Hence Contrail had little margin for error.

“I think the level of this year’s Tenno Sho (Autumn) was extremely high,” Yahagi said, “and that one mistake at the break or in the initial dash was the difference in the final outcome.

“As for his behavior in the gate, I have done everything I could possibly do with him, including pool work. The only thing left is for me to say to him before the race, ‘I’m begging you. Please act like a grownup.’”

Regular rider Yuichi Fukunaga, who is likewise seeking his first Japan Cup victory, believes that Contrail’s gate issues are more psychological than circumstantial.

“This year he’s gotten more unruly in the gate, but it doesn’t seem to me that’s something external that is upsetting him,” Fukunaga observed. “I think something inside him is getting him worked up. So, I don’t think that the race starting in front of the grandstand is going to have any effect on how he acts in the gate.”

At least Contrail is well drawn in post 2. Although second-best to Almond Eye here a year ago, the Shinji Maeda homebred dominated the 2020 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) in his only prior start over course and distance.

Fukunaga is mindful of the historical context of Contrail’s career finale:

“I’ve ridden many progeny of Deep Impact, and though I myself never rode Deep Impact, I think this horse may be, in size, intelligence, and suppleness, the horse that most resembles him.

“It’s the last run of an unbeaten Triple Crown horse, so to protect his honor, I very much want to see him decorated with a final win that pays a fitting tribute to him as a champion. And I want to do that in front of his fans.”

While Efforia is awaiting the Dec. 26 Arima Kinen (G1), the colt who nipped him in the May 30 Japanese Derby, Shahryar, aims to become the latest three-year-old to upstage his elders. By Deep Impact and out of champion Dubai Majesty, Shahryar is a full brother to fellow Japanese classic winner Al Ain. He’s eligible to improve from a fourth in his fall reappearance, the Sept. 26 Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), where a soft course at Chukyo undermined his chances.

“He ran well in the Kobe Shimbun Hai,” trainer Hideaki Fujiwara commented, “but the weather had been worse than I’d thought. I’d walked the track myself and it just did not suit Shahryar. I think he was exhausted during and after the race. It was a race that certainly didn’t meet expectations.”

Shahryar (center right) edges Efforia (shadow roll) in the 2021 Japanese Derby (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Shahryar has moved forward in the interim, however, and the favorable forecast portends a much better performance on Sunday. Yuga Kawada, who piloted Loves Only You in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1), picks up the mount from Fukunaga.

The other sophomore in the line-up is the filly Uberleben, heroine of the May 23 Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) at this track and trip. Subsequently developing a tendon issue, she was a ring-rusty 13th in the Oct. 17 Shuka Sho (G1) behind Akaitorino Musume, who had been runner-up in the Oaks. Uberleben, a daughter of the enigmatic Gold Ship, aims to step up second off the layoff as she takes on older males.

Among them are two other Japanese Derby winners – Wagnerian (2018) and Makahiki (2016) – making a total of four along with Contrail and Shahryar. Wagnerian hasn’t placed since a third in the 2019 Japan Cup, but Makahiki ended a five-year losing skid when capturing the Oct. 10 Kyoto Daishoten (G2) over Aristoteles and Kiseki. Veteran Kiseki, still winless since the 2017 Kikuka Sho, has nevertheless had his moments, especially his stellar second in Almond Eye’s first Japan Cup tally in 2018. But Aristoteles is arguably the one to take out of the Kyoto Daishoten.

Contrail wins the Kikuka Sho 2020
Contrail digs deep to beat Aristoteles in the 2020 Kikuka Sho to sweep Japan’s Triple Crown undefeated (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Aristoteles had nearly upset Contrail in the third jewel of the Triple Crown, the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) (G1), last fall. The son of Epiphaneia carried that top form into 2021 with a victory in the Jan. 24 American Jockey Club Cup (G2). Trainer Hidetaka Otonashi notes that Nakayama’s heavy going sapped him, though, and left its mark as a loss of form through the spring. Aristoteles’s near-miss last out signals that he’s back in business.

Authority, who missed the 2020 classics, underscored the depth of that crop when defeating elders in the Copa Republica Argentina (G2). The Orfevre colt recently regained winning form in the same race, scoring a repeat on Nov. 7 despite toting top weight as the defending champion.

Shadow Diva, unplaced in a pair of fillies’ classics in 2019, comes off a new career high in the Fuchu Himba (G2). Four besides Contrail are exiting the Tenno Sho Autumn – fourth Sanrei Pocket, ninth You Can Smile, 10th Muito Obrigado, and 13th Mozu Bello. Lord My Way, fifth in the Kyoto Daishoten, regressed to 13th in the Copa Republica Argentina. Windjammer, whose wins have come versus lesser on dirt, faces a huge task at this level.

No international shipper has won the Japan Cup since Alkaased nosed out Heart’s Cry in 2005, a stat that a trio of Europeans will try to erase on Sunday.

Ballydoyle hopes Broome and Japan, co-owned by Masaaki Matsushima and the Coolmore principals, finished second and fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Del Mar. Broome had a brush with glory before Godolphin’s Yibir ran him down late. As the reigning hero of the July 4 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1), Broome is eligible for a lucrative bonus if he can crack the top three in the Japan Cup, and he receives an extra $200,000 just for showing up. The son of Australia gets Ryan Moore, and a much better post 3 than stablemate Japan, who’s stuck in the far outside post 18 with Yutaka Take.

French raider Grand Glory has an even bigger historical trend to overcome. The only European female to win the Japan Cup is Stanerra (1983). But the Gianluca Bietolini mare arrives at the top of her game, having captured the Prix Jean Romanet (G1) over Audarya and Grand Prix de Vichy (G3) versus males, and she just missed by a nose in the Prix de l’Opera (G1) on Arc Day.