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Keiba Diary: Arc washout and Sprinters shock, Japan’s autumn season is here

JRA broadcaster Adrian Webber on all things Japan, with a three-day weekend coming up off the back of last weekend’s Group 1 action at home and abroad.

It is looking like Titleholder will head to the G1 Arima Kinen in December after his brave attempt to make all the running in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France last Sunday. That approach was always going to be a big ask on the soft Longchamp ground, and the sodden turf meant that Japan’s four runners could only manage double digit placings in the twenty-runner field.

Titleholder’s bold attempt at least gave Japanese fans some hope until the turn into the home straight but Japan’s other big-name contender, Do Deuce, was never a factor and struggled at the rear throughout. Yutaka Take said of this year’s G1 Tokyo Yushun winner, “the horse didn’t run any kind of race,” and that was the simple, blunt truth. But the horse’s trainer, Yasuo Tomomichi, had a little more insight to offer. “People often talk about the ground being different, but the European horses always seem so strong over distances of 2000 metres or 2400 metres,” he said.

 

Meanwhile, on the home front, Nakayama on Sunday staged the first Group 1 race since the summer break, and 22,920 people were in attendance, more than a five-fold increase on last year’s Covid-affected figure. 

Mask-wearing is still ongoing in Japan but the face coverings couldn’t hide the smiling eyes on-course, from racegoers happy to be back ‘live’ to the purveyors of yakitori in the basement food stalls. Not, perhaps, if you thought Meikei Yell was going to win the G1 Sprinters Stakes, as the unpredictable filly fluffed her lines once again, and underlined her all-or-nothing nature. The four-year-old has won seven of her 13 starts, but finished unplaced on the other six occasions, including at each of her tries at Group 1 level. 

Her jockey Kenichi Ikezoe was at a loss to explain the defeat. “She seemed her usual self and was running well, but from about 500 metres out, the point at which she usually picks up speed, she seemed to have nothing left. 

“I don’t know the reason, possibly the short time between races was a factor,” Ikezoe explained of last month’s G2 Centaur Stakes heroine, after the race fell to the outsider Gendarme, trained by Yasutoshi Ikee.

Michel's testing time

French rider Mickaëlle Michel is a popular visitor to Japan and she stopped off last week to take the full-time JRA jockey licence exam at Shiroi in Chiba prefecture. Due to the coronavirus situation, she’s been unable to make it to Japan these past two years or so but is hoping to join Christophe Lemaire and Mirco Demuro and become only the third foreign jockey to pass the test and earn a full-time JRA licence. 

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Mickaëlle Michel riding at Sapporo in 2019. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Michel set a record on the NAR (local government racing) circuit a few years ago for the number of wins by a jockey on a short-term license, and now hopes to move up to the top level. The written section of the test, in English, covers a range of knowledge on Japanese racing, ranging from rules, history, statistics and raceday protocol. 

“I’ve been studying hard, and I thought I could answer a lot of the questions well, so I’m hoping for the best,” she commented during her short trip, before departing for the United States. If she is successful, she can take the second part of the application process, an interview with stewards in Japanese, next January.

Rising stars prepare

Guineas and Oaks winner Stars On Earth continues on the comeback trail from injury and is building up her preparation in a bid to take out the G1 Shuka Sho and complete the fillies Triple Tiara here in Japan. Trainer Mizuki Takayanagi reports things to be going smoothly so far in the lead-in to the big race on October 16. 

“She’s training well, and we’re just taking it step by step. Her times have been as expected, so I feel things are fine with her,” Takayanagi said recently.

Another contender for that race will be Art House, recent winner of the G2 Rose Stakes, and she returned to her stable at Ritto on September 27 with connections satisfied. 

The talented four-year-old Maurice colt Jack D’Or returned to Ritto on the same day and was reported to be full of himself, or ‘genki ippai’ as trainer Kenichi Fujioka put it in the local patois. The powerful chestnut has won seven of his last nine races and is being aimed at the G1 Autumn Tenno Sho at the end of the month. 

Another of Maurice’s kids, Gentildonna’s daughter Geraldina, is also being pointed towards a Group 1. Sunday Thoroughbred Club recently announced that the impeccably-bred four-year-old will be aimed at the G1 QEII Cup for fillies and mares in November. 

Three in three

There’s no letup in the action this coming weekend either, with three days of JRA racing going into Monday offering three Group races. The key contest on Saturday is the G3 Saudi Arabia Royal Cup over a mile at Tokyo, which is often won by a very promising juvenile. This year sees Nocking Point – another by Maurice – return to the scene of his course and distance newcomers victory in June. The colt is out of Cecchino, winner of the G2 Flora Stakes in 2016, and he looks to be a major player.

Recent big-name winners of the Saudi Arabia Royal Cup include Danon Premium (2017) and Gran Alegria (2018), as well as Salios who has not won since his 2020 success but has proven himself to be a high-class athlete. Damian Lane rode the four-year-old to third place in the G1 Yasuda Kinen in June and that form would put him right there in Sunday’s G2 Mainichi Okan over 1800 meters at Tokyo. 

And at Hanshin on Monday, last week’s Group 1 winner Ikee sends out Boccherini, a full brother to past champion Lovely Day, in the G2 Kyoto Daishoten. Boccherini is a tough character and finished second to Titleholder in the G2 Nikkei Sho earlier this year, before winning the G2 Meguro Kinen the last time he raced. The horse’s regular jockey, Suguru Hamanaka, will team up again.

So, while the Arc has passed and that quest can roll on for another year, at least, the quality-packed autumn season here in Japan is only just beginning to get interesting. 

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