David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Japan’s Arc quest: tactics and wet track make for a difficult task

Kazuo Yokoyama will achieve a rare feat if he makes all on Titleholder to land Japan its first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.

Here we go again. It’s the first weekend in October and Japan has its Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe challengers set to try and become the first from there to win Europe’s biggest race. Cue the rain.

The going on Thursday was already soft, with rain clouds forming to pour on Japan’s parade again. Japanese horses are used to well-drained, hoof rattling tracks: soft in France and soft in Japan are about as close in likeness as the Everglades are to the Sahel.

This year’s Japanese challenge is strong, on paper: the superstars Titleholder and Do Deuce, supported by the high-class Deep Bond and the tough longshot Stay Foolish. But it has been as strong before and failed; the greatest hope seems to rest upon Titleholder, leaving the obsessives to scour his British-bred dam’s pedigree for hints of European soft ground links, finding slivers of hope in the names of Motivator and Shirley Heights.

But jockey Kazuo Yokoyama sounded like a man content with his lot after he exercised Titleholder at Chantilly on Wednesday. He said the horse felt good on the ‘very soft’ strip of turf and ‘didn’t have any problems going through it.’

Of course, no one knows exactly how the Japanese will handle the going or the rigours of travelling to a new environment until they race. 

What we do know is that Titleholder is a devastating front-runner. The colt has advanced from a step behind the best of his crop as a three-year-old to being lengths superior to his peers at four. His make-all demolitions of high-class opponents this season have been wondrous displays of tactical speed, relentless rhythm and stamina in bundles, be that at a-mile-and-a-half or two miles.


Titleholder wins the 3000m Kikuka Sho at Hanshin, the first of three Group 1s to date. (Photo by JRA)

But front runners don’t win Arcs, not very often, anyway. If Yokoyama rides his race from the front as expected, and wins, he will be in the company of legends. You have to go back to 1996 for the last time a horse led from almost the off and won; that was Helissio, ridden by Olivier Peslier. Before that? Try Lester Piggott and his sublime pacing on Alleged in the 1977 Arc. Others have tried and failed, most notably the gallant El Condor Pasa under Masayoshi Ebina 23 years ago.

Piggott and Peslier were well-acquainted with Longchamp but Yokoyama – a respected jockey on the up – has had just one ride at the track, two weeks ago when last over a mile. That will have helped him to understand some of what Longchamp is about and his judgement aboard Titleholder in the horse’s last three wins has been impeccable.

Longchamp takes some riding, though, especially in the context of a 20-runner Arc. The 2400-metre journey has its challenges and as the big field moves through the first quarter-mile, jockeys must settle their horses into a rhythm amid the hustle and bustle before they start the climb, through the woods and up to the crown of the hill around 1200 metres from home. From there they ascend, turning into the false straight, then again through the last corner into that 500-metre run home.

What will Yokoyama do and how will Titleholder respond if a horse takes him on, as Japan’s Tap Dance City did to North Light in 2004? That move killed the chances of both horses. 

An Arc winner must settle and find a smooth rhythm early – the incredible Treve excepted – and while Yokoyama attempts to achieve that up front, Yutaka Take will aim to relax Do Deuce into a rhythm from gate three.

The Tokyo Yushun winner’s appeal has waned since his fourth in the Prix Niel but the three-year-old tired late on and is expected to be hard fit now. Perhaps it is time for one of the classic crop to succeed: older horses have won the past four Arcs and you have to go back to the mid-1970s to see that sequence matched. 

Take has been trying to win the Arc for 28 years but Japan’s greatest jockey has failed in ten attempts. He took stern criticism for his first ride, sixth on White Muzzle in 1994, and his best results have been third on Sagacity, third on Deep Impact, albeit disqualified, and fourth on Kizuna.

Given that the likes of Orfevre, El Condor Pasa, Kizuna, Deep Bond and Makahiki were beaten in the Arc after winning on trials day, maybe trainer Yasuo Tomomichi’s softer approach with Do Deuce will pay off. Take believes so.

Meanwhile, another multiple champion in Japan, Christophe Lemaire, will need to make a decision about the stamina-laden Stay Foolish from the widest gate. Dropping in behind would leave his mount at the mercy of speedier rivals: Frankie Dettori’s win on Golden Horn in 2015 began with a wide solo run from the off, crossing gradually to join the field, but that same move failed the wide-drawn Chrono Genesis last year.

As for Deep Bond, he moved well when kicking up divots on the turf on Thursday morning under his jockey Yuichi Fukunaga. The five-year-old has been no match for Titleholder this year and his last-place finish on heavy ground in last year’s race suggests any rain will be a negative; on the flip side, he is fresher this time, having skipped the trial. 

Stay Foolish and Christophe Lemaire. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Deep Bond wins the G2 Hanshin Daishoten over 3000m in March. (Photo by JRA)

G1 Tokyo Yushun winner Do Deuce. (Photo by JRA)

And then there is the matter of 16 other runners, some of Europe’s best, no less. Last year’s heavy ground Arc winner Torquator Tasso will relish rainfall; Britain’s hopes rest largely on Alpinista, a mare with proven form on soft going.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained three-year-old Luxembourg has emerged as the race favourite after his soft ground win in the Irish Champion Stakes last time, and the two French three-year-olds that were a close second and third that day, Obesto and Vadeni, will also handle wet conditions and could turn the tables.

One day Japan will win an Arc and it might be Sunday but the difficulty of travelling halfway around the world to face Europe’s best in the wet is emphasised in the hard stat that Japan has had 30 runners in 19 Arcs going back to 1969. They have had four top-five placings, all runners-up and eighteen have finished in double-digit positions. 

So, here we go again. It will be captivating whatever the outcome. 


Japanese contenders: Arc lead-in run

Titleholder – 1st in G1 Takarazuka Kinen (2200m), July 26 at Hanshin

Do Deuce – 4th in G2 Prix Neil (2400m), September 11 at Longchamp

Stay Foolish – 2nd in G2 Grand Prix de Deauville (2500m), August 28 at Deauville

Deep Bond – 4th in G1 Takarazuka Kinen (2200m), July 26 at Hanshin 



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