Tokyo’s Sunday card holds more than usual interest for North American racing fans. While the featured February (G1) serves as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), if connections are so inclined to pass on the autumn riches at home, the undercard Hyacinth S. (late Saturday night 12:25 a.m. EST) may have a more direct bearing on the Kentucky Derby (G1) field.
As the last and decisive leg of the “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby” series, the Hyacinth presents a treasure trove of points on a 30-12-6-3 scale, triple each of the first two legs. Thus it will determine the sophomore invited to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May.
That too is contingent, of course, upon who might want to take up that engagement. Last year’s Hyacinth winner, Epicharis, politely declined his invitation as the inaugural Japan Road point leader, as did the next in the line of succession, and no Japanese-based runner competed in the 2017 Derby.
Considering that only two of the 16 Hyacinth entrants are Triple Crown nominated, it’s uncertain whether history may repeat itself in this second year of the Japan Road. But three others have reportedly indicated an interest in a late Triple Crown nomination if one wins the Hyacinth. And half of the field is eligible for the March 31 UAE Derby (G2) as well, so perhaps a Kentucky Derby participant could yet emerge one way or another.
The two Triple Crown nominees, Ruggero and Work and Love, are arguably not the most interesting in the line-up.
Ruggero was the first to strike on the Japan Road, bagging 10 points in the opening Cattleya Sho back on November 25. That allowance test over Tokyo’s metric mile was his first try on dirt, and not as deep as the waters he’ll find on Sunday. As a son of Kinshasa no Kiseki and Italian classic winner Silver Cup, Ruggero logically started out on turf, and switched after not appearing to cut the mustard versus better on Japan’s premier surface. It’s possible that he really is a different animal on the dirt, but the Cattleya Sho was inconclusive. Trained by Yuichi Shikato, whose biggest career win came in the 2008 Japan Cup (G1) with Screen Hero, Ruggero must step up again to topple this group.
Work and Love, by Sinister Minister and out of a Medaglia d’Oro mare, has the opposite trajectory as a burgeoning prospect on dirt who flopped on the turf last out. After rallying from far back to break his maiden at Chukyo December 2, he quickly repeated the feat in a December 9 allowance at Hanshin. Then Work and Love raised his sights too high in the December 28 Hopeful (G1) at about 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Nakayama, and never got involved in last as a 217-1 longshot. The dirt plainly suits him much better, but since he got outpaced early in both of his wins at about 1 1/8 miles, it’s a concern how he’ll cope with some pretty sharp rivals at a metric mile. Note that, for whatever it’s worth, Work and Love is not nominated to the UAE Derby. But his more exciting stablemate, recent debut romper Copano Kicking, is eligible for both the UAE Derby and the US Triple Crown.
Three of the four most appealing Hyacinth contenders are UAE Derby-eligible.
Dark Repulser attracts interest for several reasons, chief among them his fourth to Le Vent Se Leve and Don Fortis in Japan’s top dirt race for juveniles, the December 13 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. The middle leg of the three-race Japan Road series, the Kawasaki feature promised to be informative until Le Vent Se Leve was sidelined, and Don Fortis has yet to resurface himself. Dark Repulser could flatter them in absentia, especially since he’s two-for-two at Tokyo. On the front end in his newcomers’ win on October 14, he apparently saw something that made him jump, almost Dayjur-style, in deep stretch, but he smoothly regained stride, remained in control, and never missed a beat. Dark Repulser had a different kind of adventure in his November 11 allowance, as he was bottled up behind the leaders on the rail, and did well to extricate himself in time to win decisively. A Hard Spun half-brother to Espoir City, the winner of the 2009 Japan Cup Dirt (G1) and 2010 February Stakes, Dark Repulser has every right to progress. Post 15 in a 16-horse field, though, does him no favors. At least he keeps regular rider Keita Tosaki, hitherto Ruggero’s pilot too. Dark Repulser’s connections (owner Akira Katayama and trainer Takashi Kanari) have mentioned making him a late Triple Crown nominee if he wins the Hyacinth.
Great Time has been favored in all four of his starts, and with the Ryan Moore factor added on Sunday, the trend may well hold again. Among the priciest yearlings at the 2016 JRHA Select Sale, the King Kamehameha colt commanded the equivalent of $1.4 million from Kaneko Makoto Holdings. He was produced by the multiple stakes-winning Miracle Legend, a Fuji Kiseki half-sister to Grade 1 dirt star Roman Legend. Trained like his dam and uncle by Hideki Fujiwara, Great Time sports a 4-2-2-0 mark that might have been better with different trips, all around nine furlongs at Kyoto. Stuck on the rail and having to angle out in his October 14 debut, Great Time flashed home but had to settle for second. He promptly romped by five second time out. Resuming two months later in a January 14 allowance, Great Time appeared caught for speed momentarily on the far turn, and closed too late to catch front-running Sumahama. Back for another try February 11, Great Time was stoked up earlier and cruised home, as if keeping something in reserve for Sunday.
Meisho Opus has perfected the cruise control technique in his last pair, after dropping his first three. With jockey Hideaki Miyuki not lifting a finger, he turned an October 29 Kyoto maiden into an exercise gallop as he sauntered past his rivals. A sterner test awaited December 2 at Chukyo, but he passed it when readily overtaking the talented Mr Melody in record time. The step up from about seven furlongs to a metric mile should be no issue. Owner Yoshio Matsumoto has another son of his colorbearer Meisho Bowler, who scored his signature win here in the 2005 February Stakes, in Meisho Isana. Although unbeaten from two starts with Yutaka Take, also going about seven furlongs on dirt, Meisho Isana has more of a workmanlike look, and a less pretty action. He took a newcomers’ event at Hanshin by a neck, and followed up by a more emphatic 3 1/2 lengths in a Kyoto allowance. Both the “Meishos” are in the UAE Derby, and if one wins the Hyacinth, he would be added to the Triple Crown as a late nominee.
Danke Schon is not UAE Derby nominated, but that may be due to stamina limitations over the about 1 3/16-mile distance. That doesn’t apply to the metric mile, however, and the speedy chestnut is already proven at this track and trip. By Beholder’s sire Henny Hughes, Danke Schon is out of a close relative to Japanese champion sprinter Laurel Guerreiro. He was favored in a November 18 newcomers’ race at Tokyo, but under perhaps too-tender handling, he was denied by Yida Pegasus (a UAE Derby nominee who came back to score again this past Monday). The top two were nine lengths clear of third. Next time at Hanshin, Danke Schon made no mistake, and with a couple of taps of the whip to keep him honest, he held sway by three lengths. Regular rider Norohiro Yokoyama was again reluctant to ask him for too much last time in a course-and-distance allowance. Although Danke Schon was always traveling like a winner, the margin doesn’t reflect it with a tight finish alongside Ramses Barows and Mary Moon. If a mile is the upper limit of his capacity, he wasn’t pressed to see it out, and the Mitsugu Kon trainee may find more when called upon.
Ask Hard Spun was not made UAE Derby eligible either, but he’s perfect from two starts since switching to dirt at Kyoto. The form is nothing to get excited about, since he drubbed an 0-for-6 maiden in one and beat an exposed opponent in his January 27 follow-up. Yet he is by Hard Spun, and apparently has done enough to lure Christophe Lemaire into the saddle.
The three remaining UAE Derby nominees all have a bit more to prove. Bahn Frei has the pedigree and connections, as a North Hills Co. homebred by Gold Allure out of a daughter of Unbridled’s Song and Folklore. He’s also trained by Yoshito Yahagi, whose pupils include 2016 Dubai Turf (G1) winner Real Steel and 2012 Japanese Derby (G1) victor Deep Brillante. But Bahn Frei has yet to capture the imagination with two hard-fought victories from four starts. If Taiki Ferveur’s overall record is blotted by his turf losses, he is unbeaten in two dirt attempts. He showed an affinity for the surface when trouncing a Niigata maiden by nine lengths, but just prevailed by a nose in an allowance at Nakayama. Nishino Trans Am was third to Ask Hard Spun in his latest, leaving him with still just one win from eight outings. The Kentucky-bred son of 2013 Derby hero Orb must find more to match trainer Hideyuki Mori’s past celebrities. Maybe new rider Filip Minarik, Germany’s top jockey who just got short-term JRA license, can find the key to Nishino Trans Am.
The rest of the Hyacinth field is not UAE Derby nominated, and in their cases, perhaps an implication of their chances in this spot.
Sumahama has capitalized on being controlling speed to break his maiden at Hanshin (where runner-up Magma came back to win) and to upset Great Time at Kyoto. The question is how he’ll cope with a presumably less congenial set-up.
Unbeaten Wakamiya Oji deserves credit for finding a way to win from radically different points at Nakayama. He stalked in his newcomers’ race, in which both placegetters came back to win, and came from the clouds to take a January 6 allowance at the same about nine-furlong trip.
Neko Washi leaps off the page as a son of Empire Maker. Just rallying from well out of it to break his maiden at this track and trip, in his fourth try, now he must raise his game versus winners.
Rounding out the bulky field are two veterans of the National Association of Racing circuit, Vip Raising and Morino Last Boss, who both have class concerns at the JRA listed level.