December 8, 2022

Japan Road to Kentucky Derby enhanced by additions of Unicorn, Japan Dirt Derby

Cafe Pharoah wins the Hyacinth
Cafe Pharoah overcame a slow start in the Hyacinth on the Japan Road (Yuki Shimono)

Just as additional scoring opportunities have been added to the domestic Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule, so will Japanese-based hopefuls get more chances to earn an invitation to Churchill Downs.

The two new races on the Japan Road are both the most logical spots for the top dirt sophomores – the one-mile Unicorn (G3) June 21 at Tokyo, also the host of the Nov. 23 Cattleya Sho and Feb. 23 Hyacinth, and the 1 1/4-mile Japan Dirt Derby at Oi. Each race awards points to the respective top four on a 40-16-8-4 scale, the same as the originally scheduled final leg of the Japan Road series, the March 28 Fukuryu at Nakayama.

While Fukuryu upsetter Herrschaft was not nominated to the Triple Crown by the early deadline, the other three Japan Road winners are all nominees. Unbeaten Hyacinth hero Cafe Pharoah, by American Pharoah, hasn’t raced since, but Cattleya Sho victor Dieu du Vin just won again on the Tokyo dirt May 17. In contrast, Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun winner Vacation has been unplaced in his two ensuing starts.

“I feel quite honored that the Grade 3 Unicorn Stakes has been added to the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby,” said Mr. Masayuki Goto, the President and CEO of the Japan Racing Association.

“In the past, winners of the Unicorn Stakes have progressed to win Grade 1 races later in their careers. As the gateway to success in our 3-year-old dirt division, I firmly believe this race will play an important role and fulfill its duty as one of the qualifying races for the Kentucky Derby.”

The Unicorn honor roll includes such champions as Le Vent Se Leve (2018), Gold Dream (2016), Kane Hekili (2005), Agnes Digital (2000), Wing Arrow (1998), and Taiki Shuttle (1997), who famously took the 1998 Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) at Deauville.

Other Unicorn winners with major scores on their resumes are Sunrise Nova (2017), Nonkono Yume (2015), Best Warrior (2013), and Utopia (2003), a son of Forty Niner who also landed the 2006 Godolphin Mile (G2) on Dubai World Cup night as well as the 2007 Westchester (G3) at Belmont Park.

“Worldwide, we are experiencing very difficult times caused by COVID-19,” Goto added. “Even in this situation, I sincerely hope one of our horses will emerge from the renewed format of the series to qualify and add extra excitement to this year’s rescheduled running of the 146th Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, as Master Fencer did last year.”

Indeed, the creditable performances by 2019 Japan Road invitee Master Fencer in both the Derby (elevated to sixth) and Belmont S. (G1) (fifth) indicated that the series could produce competitive runners. The fact that Master Fencer got in as the fourth on the Japanese points list, and therefore a cut below the division leader at home, only reinforced the idea. It’s arguably just a matter of time until an elite dirt runner from Japan accepts the ticket.

The postponement of the Kentucky Derby, and resulting addition of the Unicorn and Japan Dirt Derby to the Japan Road, could make that prospect likelier. By the summertime, the division has come into clearer focus, compared to the winter series. Two of the Japan Road qualifying races (Cattleya Sho and Fukuryu) are not even black-type events, leaving the Hyacinth on the JRA circuit and Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun on the local NAR circuit as the only listed stakes in the initial series. The Unicorn brings greater cache as a Grade 3, and the Japan Dirt Derby lures quality runners over to the NAR.

Hiroshi Saito, Racing Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Racing Association, commented on the Japan Dirt Derby’s novel role as the series finale.

“We are honored to have the Japan Dirt Derby be selected as a Kentucky Derby points race,” Saito said. “The Japan Dirt Derby brings together the best domestic 3-year-olds in the country and we are confident that this year will have a strong field of contenders.

“Even though it is due to the date change of the Kentucky Derby that we have been added to only the 2019-2020 renewal of the ‘Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby,’ as the final race in the series with a major impact on the final standings, I sincerely hope that the Japan Dirt Derby will be an exciting event to watch for racing fans both in Japan and the United States.”

The Japan Dirt Derby has been won by the aforementioned Unicorn heroes Le Vent Se Leve, Nonkono Yume, and Kane Hekili. Dirt star and noted sire Gold Allure (2002) is likewise on the list of winners, along with sons Chrysolite (2013) and Chrysoberyl (2019), Chrysolite’s full brother and Japan’s reigning champion dirt horse. Among other Japan Dirt Derby winners are divisional mainstays Furioso (2007), Success Brocken (2008), Testa Matta (2009), and Grape Brandy (2011).

“We are thrilled that our great partners with the Japan Racing Association and the Tokyo Metropolitan Racing Association helped us identify two important races for our Road to the Kentucky Derby extension, one at JRA’s Tokyo Racecourse and the other with the esteemed group at Tokyo City Keiba,” said Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing for Churchill Downs Inc.

“We’ve seen international interest grow in the Kentucky Derby since our partnership with the JRA was formalized in 2016, and we’re encouraged that this year’s Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby could produce another meaningful starter.”