Adrian Webber



Keiba Diary: cherry blossoms signal the first Classic is almost here

It’s springtime in Japan and Adrian Webber has his eye on emerging talents ready to bloom, recaps the Dubai action, and looks ahead to the Osaka Hai and the Oka Sho.

The famous cherry blossoms in Japan are just about managing to hang on in one of the earliest times of the year ever recorded for the blooms, but it won’t take much more rain to see the petals falling as quickly as the superlatives that rained down on Equinox last weekend after his easy win in Dubai. Just where the horse goes from here will be a matter for connections to decide but it now becomes like a tightrope walk with expectations so high.

Ushba Tesoro was another great winner for Japan, in the Dubai World Cup, and the horse probably couldn’t believe it himself after his relatively humble wins at Oi and Kawasaki led him to an extraordinary win on one of the world’s biggest stages.


Equinox dazzled in the G1 Sheema Classic at Meydan. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)

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

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

Praise must also be given to the calm and collected Yuga Kawada, who’s proved himself to be a world-class jockey, as could be seen with his timed-to-perfection ride on Ushba Tesoro.

Rounding out Japan’s hat-trick of wins at the big meeting was Derma Sotogake in the UAE Derby, another stroll in the park for Christophe Lemaire, and the colt looks like he’s headed to Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby.

Show of Force

Back in Japan, last Sunday’s dismal weather was probably only appreciated by the winner of the G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen, First Force, a son of the great Lord Kanaloa. The seven-year-old took most people by surprise as he fought off the challenge of Namura Clair and went on to give jockey Taisei Danno and trainer Masayuki Nishimura their first Group 1 titles. Meikei Yell couldn’t come up with the goods again and her trip to Hong Kong for the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize is perhaps in doubt.

Also at the weekend, Titleholder came back, Phoenix-like, to trounce his rivals, including Ask Victor More, by winning the G2 Nikkei Sho by an authoritative eight lengths, and that victory sets him on the path once more to the G1 Tenno Sho (Spring), which he won so impressively last year.

Remember the name

There are plenty of good young jockeys coming through the ranks in Japan, but one whose name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue is Katsuma Sameshima from Saga Prefecture in the south-west of the country. Now in his ninth year of riding with the JRA, he’s starting to be in demand, as could be seen with his 18 rides last weekend which produced three winners. 

He was hoping for a Group 1 success on Toshin Macau last Sunday to bring him in line with other young riders he spent time with at the horse racing school, namely Ryusei Sakai, Kiwamu Ogino and Yukito Ishikawa, all Group 1 winners in their own right. It wasn’t to be with Toshin Macau not handling the wet ground, so the closest he’s come to a big win remains Air Spinel’s second place finish in the 2021 G1 February Stakes. Still, let’s not forget the name as it’s surely just a matter of time before the 26-year-old snags his first Group 1.

On the run in Hokkaido

Two-year-olds scheduled to race in ‘Hokkaido keiba’ have been put through their paces recently at the NAR’s Mombetsu track in Hidaka-cho, Hokkaido. The youngsters have been schooled since March 16 and are given tests in entering the stalls, their behaviour in the gates, and their ability to run well enough to complete 800-metre races within 57 seconds. 

The weather in Hokkaido is always another challenge to overcome and the amount of rain this month has led to the ground not being at its best, but changing the sand on the course has made things better. Consequently all 120 horses have passed their tests (with no cheat notes), and a colt by Majestic Warrior even posted a time of 49.1 seconds. 

Perhaps some of the elite ‘students’ will eventually make it to JRA races, but in the meantime their early freshman year will begin on April 19 at Mombetsu, when the Hokkaido season begins, and they’ll have 82 race days through till November, all night meetings, to shape their futures.

Next couple of weeks

Looking ahead to this week’s racing in Japan, the main course is undoubtedly the G1 Osaka Hai at Hanshin on Sunday. The 2000 metre, all-age contest sees the return of Stars On Earth, last year’s Best Three-Year-Old Filly. She might be brought down to earth though with a host of other stars taking on the race: trainer Yasutoshi Ikee’s Weltreisende can’t be far off a Group 1 win, Hishi Iguazu seems to be improving with age, Geraldina will have plenty of support after finishing third to Equinox last time, and even that naughty boy Danon The Kid promises much if he can behave himself this time.

Standout filly Stars On Earth. (Photo by JRA)

Danon The Kid takes out the 2020 G1 Hopeful Stakes. (Photo by JRA)

Two-year-old filly Liberty Island destroys her Hanshin opposition. (Photo by JRA)

Talking of Stars On Earth, two weeks later we will have the much-anticipated return of top Classic contender Liberty Island when trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida sends her to the G1 Oka Sho, the first fillies’ Classic of the year. The daughter of Duramente will again look to impress in the same way she did as a two-year-old when winning the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies. 

This year’s Oka Sho will see last year’s champion apprentice Seina Imamura have just her second Group 1 ride when she partners Rivara. Imamura first bloomed this time last year and here’s hoping the cherry blossoms stick around a bit longer to add that extra bloom to Japan’s early spring racing.




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing