Five key storylines that will define Japanese racing this autumn

International incursions in Hong Kong and North America, the prospect of one of the most highly anticipated Japan Cup clashes of all time and two champion riders engaged in a fierce jockeys' premiership dogfight: David Morgan picks out the five most compelling storylines as Japanese racing surges towards its 2023 crescendo.

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

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Japan’s autumn racing season kicked off a couple of weeks ago with Mama Cocha’s Sprinters Stakes win, but the excitement really ramps up this weekend when Liberty Island steps out for the first time since May in the last leg of the fillies’ Triple Tiara, the G1 Shuka Sho. 

Huge expectations rest on the three-year-old’s withers, and her attempt at ‘immortality’ is the first of the rolling Group 1 action covering 11 of the next 12 weekends, right through to the Hopeful Stakes on December 28.

Headlining the big show are the Tenno Sho Autumn in three weeks’ time, the Japan Cup in late November and the mighty Arima Kinen on Christmas Eve: the story threads are multiple and intertwining. Here, we look at some of the key narratives that will take us through to the year’s end.


1. Kawada vs Lemaire

The battle between Japan’s two top jockeys has been a fascinating tussle all year long and it’s only going to intensify through these final three months.

Christophe Lemaire had won five consecutive championships when Yuga Kawada halted the Frenchman’s march last year in winning his long-awaited first title. The Japanese rider set out his stall from day one this year, firing in a double on the season’s first day, January 5, and he has maintained an incredible level of performance ever since.

Kawada is a jockey renowned for his high wins to rides ratio, his selective approach, and he currently has 122 wins on the board at an incredible strike rate of 31 percent. In fact, alongside his outright championship title for most wins in 2022, he also collected the JRA awards for being the jockey with the best winning average and the highest prize money.

But Lemaire has been up for the battle too this year and is determined to give his all to regain the crown. He thrives when the Tokyo races are in full flow, as they are during the autumn season.

Christophe Lemaire is eyeing off a sixth JRA jockeys' premiership. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

Ushba Tesoro and Yuga Kawada swoop home from last to claim the Dubai World Cup. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

He emphasised this on the three-day weekend of October 7, 8 and 9 when he picked up seven wins during that period to mow down a five-win deficit, emerging with 123 wins for the term and a narrow lead over Kawada.

Lemaire has already had about 100 rides more than Kawada and it will be enthralling to see which approach wins out as these two exceptional jockeys compete for supremacy.

But there’s actually more to it than that; Kawada’s victory last year was one for Japanese self-confidence, and, should he win again, it would give further belief to the JRA’s local riders that they more than deserve to be in the Group 1 mix with the best of the expats and the foreign visitors.

2. The next big thing

This is the time of year when the two-year-old pecking order is established, with the spring Classics very much the focus.

Japanese racing takes a patient, long-term approach to developing its stars, being the healthy antithesis of the commercial lust for speedy precocity that is so prevalent in the US, Britain, and especially Australia. The JRA stages three Group 1 races for juveniles and all are in December, at distances of a mile and 2000 metres: the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, the Asahi Hai Futurity, and the Hopeful Stakes.

That being so, Japan’s first two-year-old Group 2 race is not even held until November, when there are three: the 1400m Keio Hai Nisai Stakes (November 4), the 1600m Daily Hai Nisai Stakes (November 11), and the 1800m Tokyo Sports Hai Nisai Stakes (November 18).

The recent G3 Saudi Arabia Royal Cup at Tokyo could be a pointer to the December juvenile G1 races after the colt Gonbade Qabus impressed in defeating the highly-touted filly Bond Girl and the wide-margin debut winner Strauss.

Fellow G3 winners Set Up and Ascoli Piceno are also worth keeping an eye on, as is the Aster Sho winner Catfight.

But so too are the untapped ‘Newcomer’ and maiden winners like Danon McKinley, Forlanini, Admire Belle, Jantar Mantar, and the white colt Amante Bianco, to name just a few. It’s a world of possibilities for these young hopefuls as they head deeper into autumn.  

Strapping colt Amante Bianco is a son of Henny Hughes and white mare Yukichan. (Photo by @de57802028)

3. Team Japan at Santa Anita

When Asian Racing Report was on the ground at Tokyo racecourse in May the word among participants was that the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita – a favourable West Coast location for Japanese connections – would be the bigger focus for Japan’s horsemen this autumn, rather than the increasingly hope-sapping fixation of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. That is proving to be entirely accurate.

Through Seven Seas ended up being the only Arc runner for Japan this year – a meritorious fourth – yet the Breeders’ Cup team, which heads into quarantine on Monday (October 16), is looking like it will be a strong one, both in numbers and quality.

Derma Sotogake wins the UAE Derby at Meydan. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

Songline just gets the better of Sodashi in a thrilling G1 Victoria Mile. (Photo by JRA)

As things stand, the very best of the Japanese will stay at home, as is commonly the case, but the G1 Dubai World Cup winner Ushba Tesoro leads the charge into the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic along with Derma Sotogake; then there’s the crack mare Songline for the Mile, while fellow Group 1 winners Shahryar and Win Marilyn are likely for the Turf; the sprinting mare Meikei Yell could be boarding the plane too, and one or two others might yet be confirmed.  

It’s been two years since Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine broke through to give Japan its first wins at the Breeders’ Cup and this year’s team signals Japanese interest in the event on a scale that has never been seen before. One thing is certain, there’ll be plenty of focus on the Japanese runners, and if they can pick up another win, West Coast Breeders’ Cup years might become as popular a destination as Dubai is in spring.

Del Mar glory for Yuga Kawada and Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Loves Only You. (Photo by Horsephotos)

4. Hong Kong assault

Japan has been pilfering prizes at the Hong Kong International Races for decades now, going back to Fujiyama Kenzan in 1995, but it is in the last 10 years that they have become a seriously powerful bloc.

Lord Kanaloa’s back-to-back G1 Hong Kong Sprint wins set things rolling and the impetus has gained strong momentum since through the likes of Maurice, A Shin Hikari, Loves Only You, Glory Vase etc.: all in all, Japanese connections have picked up 14 wins at the event since the great Lord sprinted home in 2012.

Lord Kanaloa wins his second straight G1 Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin. (Photo by Neville Hopwood/Getty Images)

Which horses might head there will become clearer as we progress through October and November – could Win Marilyn attempt to repeat last year’s Hong Kong Vase win if all goes well in California? – but you can bet there’ll be a solid team heading there, regardless.

Two races that have been good pointers to Hong Kong in the past are the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup for fillies and mares in mid-November, and the G1 Mile Championship, which comes a week later, so keep a close watch on those.

5. Japan Cup clash

Let’s be honest, this is the one everyone is dreaming about. The JRA promo line for its big races is ’Hero is coming,’ and Equinox versus Liberty Island in the G1 Japan Cup would be as big as it gets, a clash between the warlord king and the warrior princess.

In the champion’s corner we have the four-year-old Equinox, last season’s JRA Horse of the Year and the world’s highest rated horse based on his brilliant victory in the Dubai Sheema Classic way back in March. If he can win the Tenno Sho Autumn this month, he will only enhance his status as the world’s best; if he were to then defeat Liberty Island in the Japan Cup, he could be stepping towards greatness.

Liberty Island has cut a swathe through the JRA filly's ranks. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

Equinox set a new Meydan 2400m course record in the G1 Sheema Classic. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

Liberty Island stands in the opposing corner as a filly of extraordinary ability judging by her career so far. There’s the jaw-dropping debut as a juvenile when she set an all-time JRA record for the fastest final 600 metres of a race, any race; the brilliant deep-closing Classic win in the Oka Sho; and then that spine-tingling display of power, stamina and speed in the Yushun Himba.

There are ‘ifs,’ including the outcomes of a race apiece, to navigate before the head-to-head can happen, but everything about this hoped-for clash is ‘wow.’ It’s what horse racing should be: racing the best against the best to determine a champion’s legacy, and it underpins what autumn racing in Japan is all about.




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