Five Japanese angles at the Breeders’ Cup

Nine became eight on Wednesday with the scratching of Ecoro Neo from the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but still the size and quality of Japan’s team at Santa Anita makes it an exciting force.

Songline at Santa Anita Park. (Photo by Horsephotos)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Japan finally ‘arrived’ at the Breeders’ Cup in 2021 when Loves Only You won the Filly & Mare Turf under Yuga Kawada, followed later in the day by Marche Lorraine winning the Distaff under Oisin Murphy.

Two years down the line, with the event back in California, the Japanese have put together a solid team to take on the world, headed by Songline and Ushba Tesoro, and ably supported by Shahryar, Derma Sotogake, Win Marilyn, Jasper Krone, Win Carnelian, and the enigmatic Meikei Yell.

It was evident early in the year that Japan’s horsemen were keen to target Santa Anita this year, and the Breeders’ Cup worked hard to recruit through their Japan representative Kate Hunter. The eight they rounded up is no mean feat, given that it is coming towards the peak of the busy autumn G1 season back at home.


Japan’s very best turf runners are focused on home assignments, but the presence of the crack miler Songline, a Derby winner in Shahryar, and the dirt track superstar Ushba Tesoro, signal the intent. Furthermore, Japan’s top two riders Kawada and Lemaire have pushed pause on their title tussle to be in action. Here we look at five angles to keep an eye on.  

Dirt monsters let loose

Ecoro Neo is out of the Juvenile, but that still leaves Japan with a couple of strong contenders on the dirt, Ushba Tesoro and Derma Sotogake, both in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. First run in 1984, this race is the grandaddy of international dirt track features, the first to have tempted European runners out of their turf course comfort zone to attempt the alien surface in pursuit of a big pot and massive kudos. There have been near-misses and valiant efforts, like Ibn Bey, Giant’s Causeway, Sakhee, and Swain, but only Arcangues has succeeded (Raven’s Pass triumphed on Santa Anita’s short-lived Polytrack, not the dirt).

Japanese runners are a different kettle of fish to the Europeans. These are not turf gallopers switching over, they are specialist dirt runners, proven on the sharp, fine, sandy dirt surfaces of home, and tried and tested already overseas. Japan’s dirt programme is mature and the quality is becoming ever more evident, supported by a breeding strategy that sees top US dirt track runners in the stallion sheds and in the paddocks, alongside turf course champions.

Dubai World Cup winner Ushba Tesoro will seek to add to his international reputation in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

Derma Sotogake’s sire is the top-class US import Mind Your Biscuits while his dam Amour Poesie won the Kanto Oaks at the NAR (National Association of Racing)’s Kawasaki dirt circuit; Ushba Tesoro is a wonderful mix, being out of a Japanese dirt track-winning daughter of a G2 turf winner in the US, and he is by the Japanese turf superstar Orfevre, who has already sired a Breeders’ Cup winner on the dirt, the 2021 Distaff heroine Marche Lorraine.

Ushba Tesoro, up against America’s dirt track kings, is even vying for favouritism, and justifiably so. He won the G1 Dubai World Cup at Meydan in March and comes in off an impressive warm-up win over 1800m at Funabashi in September. Derma Sotogake followed his G2 UAE Derby win at Meydan with a solid sixth in the G1 Kentucky Derby in May and is first-up since.

There is depth at home, too, with the likes of Lemon Pop, T O Keynes, Meisho Hario, Hero Call, and the NAR’s three-year-old stars Mick Fire and Mandarin Hero, the last-named of which caused a stir when a close second in the G1 Santa Anita Derby last April. Watch out, folks, Japan’s dirt monsters are coming.  


Songline gets her chance

If things had been different, Songline would have already had a G1 Breeders’ Cup Mile experience under her belt. Connections pulled the plug on that plan last autumn when a throat issue arose after she ran fifth at Chukyo. When the Sunday Racing mare was only 10th attempting a repeat win in the Turf Sprint at Riyadh in February, there was a fear we’d seen the best of her.

Songline going back-to-back in the 2023 Yasuda Kinen. She looms as a top chance in the Breeders' Cup Mile (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

How wrong we were. Kizuna’s daughter has been better than ever at age five: she dazzled in the Tokyo spring with brilliant wins in the G1 Victoria Mile and the G1 Yasuda Kinen. As a two-time Yasuda Kinen winner, she is in rare company alongside Vodka (2008, 2009), Yamanin Zephyr (1992,1993) and, in the distant past, Sweet Sue (1952, 1953), as the only two-time winners of Japan’s great mid-year all-age mile contest.

Songline’s prep, a closing second, narrowly beaten in the G2 Mainichi Okan a month ago, was full of promise and makes her perhaps Japan’s prime pick as the most likely Breeders’ Cup winner. She faces stiff opposition, notably from the English G1 1,000 Guineas winner Mawj who comes in with a four from four record this year, but expect Songline to be charging home with that trademark rattling late run, making up for last year’s missed opportunity. 

The Shahryar conundrum

There is no doubting Shahryar’s innate quality but the 2021 G1 Tokyo Yushun winner has mixed his form and arrives at Santa Anita for the G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf off a lacklustre effort in the G2 Sapporo Kinen when 20-lengths 11th. He was never a factor that day and his tame run is concerning.

Shahryar looked to have the world at his feet when he won the 2022 G1 Dubai Sheema Classic, but a disappointing fourth of five at Royal Ascot that summer burst the Derby winner’s bubble; he bounced back with a close second in the G1 Japan Cup last November, but at Meydan in March, he was a moderate fifth in attempting to claim a second Sheema, behind the dominant Equinox.

G1 Breeders' Cup Turf runner Shahryar hasn't won since his victory in the 2022 Sheema Classic. (Photo by Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images)

It is worth noting that Shahryar is not exactly a chilled out character: before his Dubai win, he was stewed and tense in the paddock and behind the gate; during his morning training at Newmarket in the days before his Ascot failure, he looked edgy and on his toes. That’s ‘just him’ as they say, but then that is likely a factor in why his form is so in and out.

He’s one to be wary of, but at the same time, he has the talent to win if all falls his way. And, with his latest defeat fresh in the mind, one must consider, would connections have shipped him to California if he wasn’t at least physically primed? Of course not. 

Mori is still on-pace

It’s getting on for three decades since Hideyuki Mori emerged as Japan’s mould breaker. It was at Sha Tin in 1995 that he sent out Fujiyama Kenzan to win the G2 Hong Kong International Cup under Masayoshi Ebina, and three years later he masterminded Japan’s first G1 triumph on foreign shores when he saddled Seeking The Pearl to win the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville under Yutaka Take.

He followed up with Agnes World in the G1 Prix de l’Abbaye, again in France, and the G1 July Cup in England at the turn of the century before receding to the fringes of the international spotlight. But he showed in early 2021 that he still has what it takes to win on the world stage when Pink Kamehameha won the Saudi Derby at Riyadh.

Jasper Krone and Taisei Danno upset the fancied runners to lead all the way in the G3 CBC Sho at Chukyo. (Photo by JRA)

Now he is aiming to add a long-awaited North American feature race to his collection – even without Ecoro Neo – and in Jasper Krone he has a solid contender for the G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint.

It would be a fitting success for the veteran who has long been a regular buyer at the US sales, searching for speed and value for money. He has tried for a Stateside win before, and Seeking The Pearl in fact was an early sighter at the US scene when fourth in the 1999 G1 Santa Monica Handicap.

Mori’s groundbreaking adventures positioned him at the sharp end of Japan’s international vision. Those days are past, but Jasper Krone’s form is solid and the colt’s front-running effort when fourth in the G1 Sprinters Stakes last time gives his trailblazing old handler another shot at the big stage.   

Marilyn needs to sparkle

This time last year Win Marilyn was rolling out of a strong third in the Sapporo Kinen and towards a tilt at the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup, in which she placed second to Geraldina. Those runs at a mile and a quarter were full of merit but they suggested strongly that she would be at her best over further. Sure enough, she relished the 2400m at Sha Tin to win the G1 Hong Kong Vase in December.

Now she heads on to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf over 2000m and she has a lot to prove. Since Hong Kong, she has shown little. The mare was treading water a long way out in Equinox’s Sheema Classic exhibition, and when she returned in this year’s Sapporo Kinen, she was only marginally better than Shahryar in ninth position. The daughter of Screen Hero fared a shade better when beaten over 2300m in the G2 All-Comers last time but her lack of form and the race distance are a concern.

Then again, she has endured a dip like this before in her career and bounced back, and some of her rivals have distance queries too, notably Warm Heart and Inspiral. As with Shahryar, connections must be happy with her; but maybe this will set her up for a big finish in the Vase at Sha Tin.

Whatever she does, the Japanese angle overall will be a fascinating watch during this year’s Breeders’ Cup.




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