SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
Leading trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida shares his insights into Japan’s star filly and reflects on a spring campaign that surpassed expectations.
It is not unusual for the exceptionally gifted to have their quirks. Liberty Island showed this spring that she is a rare talent, but with that comes a sometimes combustible temperament that must be contained if her athletic brilliance is to be optimised.
In the lead-up to last month’s G1 Yushun Himba, the three-year-old’s rider Yuga Kawada took the unusual step of making a direct appeal to the ordinarily exuberant Tokyo crowd to lower the noise level before the start, so as not to upset the filly.
“Everyone stayed quiet until the gate opened,” her trainer Mitsu Nakauchida tells Asian Racing Report. “I think it showed that Japanese fans are really good at supporting the racing, not just enjoying the gambling, they actually respect horse racing and respect the horses.”
It also showed a deepening affection among those fans for a filly that they are daring to believe could be a rare champion.
“She is on and off, she has a switch to heat herself up, so we have to be careful with her temperament. Once she is wound up, she can kind of explode a bit, but once she has done that, she settles down: she has her moments,” Nakauchida continues.
“She shows it more in the morning or in the stable, but when she goes out on the racecourse, she is more professional. Walking around the parade ring, she walks and shows herself really well.”
To Kawada’s and Nakauchida’s relief, Liberty Island remained contained throughout the long preliminaries leading to what turned out to be one of the most stunning Oaks wins Tokyo has seen.
It is rare in any sport for an emerging athlete to prove that the booming hype around them has undersold their actual abilities, but Liberty Island’s spring campaign has shown that she is one of those rarities.
As the daughter of Duramente and Yankee Rose eases down for a summer away from the daily routines of the JRA’s Ritto training centre, her trainer tells Asian Racing Report that each of her two Classic wins surprised even him.
“She has exceeded … a lot more than we expected,” he says.
He spoke in similar terms after Liberty Island’s phenomenal G1 Oka Sho win at Hanshin in April, but even that did not prepare anyone for what came in her mind-blowing G1 Yushun Himba victory at Tokyo in May.
“Her performances have been outstanding and we didn’t expect that,” he continues. “We knew she was good and we knew she would run well, but we could not have expected that she would run that well.”
Liberty Island was Japan’s standout two-year-old last year. After a jaw-dropping debut, in which she set an all-time JRA record time for the final 600 metres of a race, she overcame the blip of a second-up defeat to win the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies and entered winter quarters as the great hope for 2023.
She emerged in the 18-runner Oka Sho over a mile, settled third last under Yuga Kawada and unleashed a breath-taking deep-closing stretch run to win cosily. And if that wasn’t impressive enough, the Yushun Himba over 2400m was an exhibition of powerful acceleration – not once, but twice – in the final straight that sent her surging well clear of her rivals.
Those Classic wins have set Liberty Island towards the G1 Shuka Sho over 2000m at Kyoto on October 15, and the chance to become the eighth filly to win the Triple Tiara; victory would put her in the company of two of the great mares of this century, Almond Eye and Gentildonna, and the signs so far suggest that she has the innate talent to reach their level of achievement.
“The plan is to go directly to the Shuka Sho,” Nakauchida confirms, following the fresh first-up approach that has already worked so well.
The filly has developed physically throughout the spring, but Nakauchida has been in no hurry to match her against colts.
“She grew,” he says. “She was a typical two-year-old filly, her muscles were quite good, but she was skinny and I expected she would fill out a little bit more.
“Since she turned three, she has got stronger physically, but still she is a typical three-year-old filly in that she is not a muscular type, she is still light; so just by looking at her now, you wouldn’t say she was ready to run against the colts, you would see her as a good three-year-old filly.”
The summer will likely bring further maturation and strengthening. JRA trainers are based at either the Ritto or Miho training centres; they have a restricted number of boxes at those centres, so when the horses are not being wound up for a race, they are sent to external training facilities, or ‘gaikyu’. Nakauchida might have 66 horses to train, but he can have only 26 in his stable at Ritto at any one time.
Liberty Island runs in the colours of the Sunday Racing Co. Ltd, a Northern Farm-affiliated race club, so she goes to their state-of-the-art gaikyu.
“Liberty Island goes to Northern Farm Shigaraki, the pre-racing facility owned and run by the Northern Farm operation,” Nakauchida explains. “That’s when horses are not close to their races, they go out there and do their rest or a break, and are lightly trained before returning to the stable to prepare for the race.
“I usually go to the pre-training facility once a week to check the horses and if something goes wrong or if there’s something I need to know, they tell me straight away.
“The Northern Farm facility has its own staff and riders, and I have my own staff in Ritto, so most of the time the assigned staff will look after the horse at Ritto, the same staff each time, and then at the farm, another set of staff will look after the horse, but again, usually the same staff each time.”
That degree of familiarity is important for a filly like Liberty Island, but there is no special treatment. Nakauchida is an accomplished horseman that gives careful attention to all the thoroughbreds in his care.
“She’s a horse, and like the other horses in my stable I train her to be hard to beat, to be the best she can be. I treat the horses the same way,” he reveals. “Don’t get me wrong, she’s a special filly, but I don’t treat her differently to how I treat all of my horses.”
Nakauchida is not looking beyond the Shuka Sho for Liberty Island at this point; discussions will be had with her owners about the next target beyond that once autumn arrives, but a race like the Japan Cup would be a possibility, depending on where other Northern Farm horses are targeted.
And it could be a big autumn for another of Nakauchida’s stable big guns, the recent G1 Yasuda Kinen runner-up Serifos, winner of the G1 Mile Championship last November.
“We will stick with running over a mile with Serifos and there are a few options in the autumn, whether we could run in the Mile Championship again or we could go abroad. But we will see how he goes over the summer and how quickly we can get him ready for racing again,” he says.
“The Breeders’ Cup would be difficult for him, a two-turn mile and a short straight, I couldn’t see him running well on that track, so I don’t think he will be going there.”
Sydney was considered earlier this year before connections opted to take Serifos to the G1 Dubai Turf, and the Melbourne Spring Carnival could yet come into play.
But, for now, Nakauchida is focused on the horses he has in his stable, primed for action, as he aims to maintain his position at the top of the JRA trainers’ premiership. The 2021 champion trainer is two wins ahead of last year’s champion Yoshito Yahagi, and is operating at a win strike rate of 22.5 percent.
Nakauchida’s achievements, at age 44, already make him one of the brightest young training talents in the world, and Liberty Island could be the horse to carry his name to an international audience. That could bring added pressures, but he says he does not feel them.
“I don’t have much pressure,” he adds. “I actually enjoy training her.”
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX