Michael Cox



His record now reads eight wins and three seconds from 11 starts, but in reality, nothing has been straight forward for Lemon Pop. 

Not so long ago the horse that once spent nearly a year on the sidelines due to injury – missing almost his entire three-year-old campaign – wasn’t even going to be entered in Sunday’s G1 February Stakes; trainer Hirosayu Tanaka had to be convinced to step back up to a mile. 

Then connections found out – via a newspaper report – that regular jockey Keita Tosaki was opting to ride key rival Dry Stout. 

The jockey situation left Godolphin’s President in Japan Harry Sweeney scrambling to find a replacement rider and he was fortunate to secure Ryusei Sakai. 

Sweeney had a long list of thank yous in his acceptance speech, and Sakai was one of them, but primarily, he paid tribute to his veterinary staff and the patience they showed with a horse that was off-the-scene for nearly one year during his key three-year-old campaign. 

“We were convinced from this horse’s first two races that this horse was a Group 1 horse,” Sweeney said. “That was recorded in his race notes at the time, but he had a few minor issues. Just frustrating stuff to be honest. We thought he was so good that we had CT scans done on him and we ended up with four different veterinary diagnoses … I am a vet myself and it was a confusing picture. 

“Our consultant saw the bright side, he told us that having four diagnoses meant I could choose the one I liked best. But in the end the horse nearly lost a year of his career, so kudos to the veterinary team for giving him the time he needed.” 

That time on the sidelines meant Lemon Pop missed a potential start in last year’s UAE Derby and a chance to book a trip to the United States for the Kentucky Derby. It also meant the son of Lemon Drop Kid was forced to grind his way through the grades to get to Group 1 level. 

“You have to go through the grades in Japan, and he had to win six races to even get into a Group 3 race, and he had to win that to get into a Group 1,” Sweeney said. “So it has been a longer road than we had been expecting. But any horse that has won eight out of 11 and been second in his other three is a fantastic horse.” 

He has now been invited to the G1 Golden Dubai Shaheen, a 1200m race at Meydan next month, in which trainer Hiroyasu Tanaka should be comfortable setting his horse for, distance-wise at least. 

“The trainer didn’t want to run him at a mile to be honest and we had to lean on him to do that,” Sweeney said. “The trainer thinks he is best at six or seven furlongs but there are only two races on the JRA calendar on dirt, this one at a mile and the other is at nine furlongs, so this was his chance. You have to do it. We are pleased that he has won a Group 1 in the JRA, that is going to be great for his curriculum vitae when he becomes a stallion.” 

Sweeney referred to the jockey change as “unplanned drama” but was happy he could choose Sakai, who is coming off a career best season of 98 wins and has 18 already this term. 

“He gave him a great ride,” Sweeney added.