Japanese champion Contrail will be a hot favorite in Sunday’s Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) at Kyoto, where he aims to emulate sire Deep Impact as an unbeaten Triple Crown winner. But his stature hasn’t prevented a full field of rivals from trying to stand in his way in the about 1 7/8-mile classic.
A budding star in his three-race juvenile campaign, Contrail rolled by five lengths in record time in the Tokyo Sports Hai Nisai (G3) and clinched the divisional championship in the Hopeful (G1). That about 1 1/4-mile affair Dec. 28 stoked Triple Crown ambitions, and trainer Yoshito Yahagi set him straight for the classics without a spring prep.
“Contrail seems to understand what our intentions are,” Yahagi was quoted as saying on hkjc.com. “He turns off after a race. He slowly revs up before one. He really is a very clever horse.”
The first jewel, the Apr. 19 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1), was perhaps Contrail’s greatest test. He was meeting another top-class rival – Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) winner Salios – at a trip that was likely to suit him just about as well as Contrail. After a stretch tussle at Nakayama, Contrail proved stronger at the end of about 1 1/4 miles.
The stretch-out in the May 31 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) at Tokyo only promised to tilt the playing field decidedly in Contrail’s favor, and so it proved as he widened his margin over Salios to three lengths. Team Salios wisely decided to chart a separate course. Turning back in distance to defeat elders in the Oct. 11 Mainichi Okan (G2), Salios has left the Triple Crown trail.
Contrail showed his well-being with an effortless-looking display in his St Leger trial, the Sept. 27 Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), and the added ground should pose no problem in the Kikuka Sho. Well drawn in post 3 with regular rider Yuichi Fukunaga, Contrail has fueled hopes that he’ll become the eighth Japanese Triple Crown winner. He would be the third to do so unbeaten, after Symboli Rudolf (1984) and Deep Impact (2005), who would be the first Japanese Triple Crown winner to sire one.
Connections have sounded upbeat about how Contrail is coming into the race, according to comments on japanracing.jp.
“He’s been fine at the stable,” Yahagi said. “We didn’t overdo things last week. This week, considering the going on the training track, his final furlong time of 12.9 seconds was fine. There are no problems with him and he knows when to switch on and off when it comes to his racing. He showed last time in the Kobe Shimbun Hai what a great turn of foot he has.”
Fukunaga revealed that Contrail has learned how to deploy his talent effectively on raceday.
“There’s been no real change with him. If anything, his reactions have become better when it comes to getting his big strides in,” his jockey said. “He can handle the pre-race environment fine. He’s had gate practice, so he should be fine at the start. His racing sense has improved a lot.”
Like his filly counterpart Daring Tact, who made history as the first to stay perfect through the fillies’ equivalent Triple Tiara in the Oct. 18 Shuka Sho (G1), Contrail has already beaten most of his opponents in the final jewel. Only four of the 17 are new challengers.
Of his re-opposing rivals, Weltreisende was second in the Hopeful, third in the Derby, and a closing second in the Kobe Shimbun Hai. The longer distance is a plus for this half-brother to last year’s Kikuka Sho hero, World Premiere. Weltreisende’s sire, Dream Journey, is himself a full brother to the latest Triple Crown champion, Orfevre (2011).
Weltreisende’s season has been punctuated by setbacks, but trainer Yasutoshi Ikee noted how much he’s progressed through it all.
“He’d broken a bone in his foreleg after the Derby, and a while ago he had a fever,” Ikee said, “but he’s recovered from both without any problems. This has meant he’s taken some time to come back to himself, but now he’s making up for lost time and is showing good form in training.
“He’s a different horse than he was earlier this year. He’s more mature and muscular now. His responses and breathing have been good in training, as well as changing leads smoothly when it matters. He should improve for his last run.”
The best of the newcomers, streaking Babbitt, wired the Sept. 21 St. Lite Kinen (G2) that memorializes the first Triple Crown winner from 1941. St. Lite placegetters Satono Flag and Galore Creek had competed in the first two classics, giving the form a solid look. Both fared better in the Satsuki Sho, where Galore Creek was third and Satono Flag fifth to Contrail, than in the Derby.
Contrail’s stablemate Satono Impresa, an eye-catching fourth in the Derby, was only 10th behind Salios in the aforementioned Mainichi Okan. But word from the yard is that Satono Impresa isn’t to be overlooked.
“The horse’s condition is better now than in the spring,” Yahagi said. “He wasn’t tired after his last race, and even though there’s only a short interval between races, there doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about. He’s been moving well and looking sharp at the finish in training.”
Other Japanese Derby also-rans in the Kikuka Sho are Deep Bond, Black Hole, Bitterender, Valcos, L’Excellence, and Man of Spirit, while Chimera Verite had been well beaten in the Satsuki Sho.
Robertson Quay wasn’t ready for the early classics, but shaped with promise when third to Contrail and Weltreisende in the Kobe Shimbun Hai. Godolphin’s Turkish Palace, a well-named son of Golden Horn, also made his graded debut there in fifth.
A class-climbing trio enters on the upswing, all coming off back-to-back wins. Making their graded debuts are Aristoteles (by 2013 Kikuka Sho victor Epiphaneia, also the sire of Daring Tact) and Danon Gloire. The Orfevre colt Diamant Minoru was unplaced in his only prior graded tilt in May, but has since come on versus lesser.
The Kikuka Sho is set for 2:40 a.m. (ET) late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, and you can watch and wager at TwinSpires.com.