Top-class races in Japan are like nowhere else. They are brilliant to contemplate and superb to behold. While some other countries are mired in small fields that lack strength in depth for their middle-distance and staying races, Japanese races at the same level are replete with highly competitive animals dripping in quality. Just look at the recent success of Japanese horses in Australia, for instance.
The 39th Japan Cup over a mile and a half at Tokyo on Sunday is one of the best races the country can offer.
There are no foreign challengers for the $5.6 million contest this year and 15 Japanese-breds do battle. Anyone holding this against the race arguably cannot truly appreciate top-class racing, however, for, irrespective of the nationality of the runners, what we have here is a fantastic contest. For those desperate for a cosmopolitan angle, consider that the riders include European superstars Ryan Moore, Oisin Murphy, Christophe Soumillon, William Buick and Frankie Dettori.
It must be admitted there are two notable absentees in last year’s 1-2. Japan’s top horse, the filly Almond Eye (named at #9 by Nicholas Godfrey among the greatest Japanese Thoroughbreds), heads instead for Hong Kong on December 8, while Kiseki is being pointed at the all-star G1 Arima Kinen at Nakayama towards the end of December. That still leaves six G1 winners, three of whom were Japanese Derby (G1 Tokyo Yushun) heroes, plus two highly progressive 3-year-old fillies.
Post time for the race is Sunday at 0640 GMT. It is Race #11 on the Tokyo card.
TOP CHOICE Rey De Oro
The best horse in the race on past exploits is Rey De Oro, one of three sired by current TRC #79 stallion King Kamehameha. The 2017 Japanese Derby winner was also second in this to Cheval Grand two years ago, beaten a length and a quarter while coming from a poor tactical position.
Last autumn, Rey De Oro showed his class by winning a pair of Graded stakes, the G2 Sankei Sho at Nakayama and the G1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) at Tokyo over two furlongs shorter. Perhaps his best effort still came in a strong-finishing neck defeat to Blast Onepiece in the 2018 Arima Kinen.
This year, things have not gone so smoothly for Rey De Oro. Trainer Kaz Fujisawa has got him to the races just three times, but the best of these outings was last up.
Though failing to defend his Sankei Sho title, he ran on nicely to finish fourth. A big field, strong pace and return to Tokyo should see him in top form, though old rival Cheval Grand (also in front of him when second in the G1 Sheema Classic in March) will be no pushover.
VALUE PICK Wagnerian
We will stick to the policy of investing in top-class sire power in this spot with Wagnerian. He has something to prove to match the best form of Rey De Oro and Cheval Grand, but he is only a 4-year-old and is progressing.
Wagnerian ran fifth to Almond Eye in the recent G1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) in which today’s rivals You Can Smile (very strong stayer, may lack tactical speed), Suave Richard and Makahiki finished fourth, seventh and tenth. Two factors induce confidence he can do better here: he was drawn very wide in stall 14 and he gave the impression that a return to a mile and half would suit. After all, his wins in the G1 Japanese Derby and G2 Kobe Shimbun Hai (from Etario) came at the trip.
This time, Wagnerian has a favourable draw in stall 2 and confidence can be had that his jockey, #20 Yuga Kawada, is good enough to get the job done against the visiting superstar riders.
You can review the Tenno Sho (Autumn) in the video above. Wagnerian (yellow cap) and You Can Smile (red cap) both finish well in the ten-furlong contest, but the former travels better and has proven himself to be a faster horse in earlier contests. He is ready to step up to the big time here.