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BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD
Japan’s ‘White Wonder’ makes her five-year-old debut in Sunday's Victoria Mile at Tokyo and her trainer hopes for a new maturity that would take the iconic mare to a higher level under her new rider, the in-form Australian Damian Lane.
It is time Sodashi matured into a Hollywood-style leading lady. That is the line from her charismatic trainer Naosuke Sugai this week as the ‘white wonder’ prepares for her return to action in the G1 Victoria Mile at Tokyo on Sunday, when she will be ridden for the first time by man of the moment Damian Lane.
The mare’s career so far has been a bit Britney Spears, turning Taylor Swift, but at age five, Sugai wants to see her mature into a star that dominates her races like Meryl Streep commands the big screen.
“Although she was said to be an idol when she was two and three years old, she was not an actress at that age. Now, I hope she can run like she has gone from being an idol to becoming an actress,” Sugai told the press at Ritto Training Center four days out from the Victoria Mile.
“This horse has a lot of fans,” he continued. “Hopefully she will get through the race safely and if she can achieve a good result, all the better.”
It should have been easy to spot a rare all-white thoroughbred at Ritto Wednesday morning, especially one wearing a Group 1-denoting purple saddle cloth with three stars for each elite race won. But then the JRA training centre is a big place, and during the hours of morning trackwork it is a hive of non-stop motion, of horses and people.
Horses pass through the expansive sand yard, past the small trainers’ stand, towards the tunnel beneath the five concentric tracks, which links to an inner holding area where they circle in a mass, awaiting their turn to stretch out on the track of choice. Take your pick: the innermost turf for steeplechasers; then working outwards to a 1600m dirt oval; the 1800m woodchip; a 1950m turf circuit; and a 2038m Polytrack.
Ritto Training Center, near Kyoto. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Thoroughbreds being led at Ritto Training Center. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
But Sodashi worked on the sixth option, the 1,085m uphill woodchip gallop – manmade – located beyond the multi-track oval’s back side. The length of the incline is shielded by a wall and is out of sight of the impressive viewing stand – a couple of years old and that warm grey hue so common in construction in these parts – so that through binoculars, only the fleeting bobbing of riders’ caps can be seen.
Thank the JRA for monitors, positioned four in a row in the stand. It was upon those screens that Sodashi was sighted, and she played her part beautifully, striding purposefully through all four angles to close out with a final 200m clocked at an impressive 11.9s. The camera loved her, that famous white coat almost luminescent in the morning’s bright rays: a whiteness of tone that would have been the envy of the sun-shunning Joan Collins.
“Manabu Sakai rode her on the incline and I instructed him to let her relax and run,” Sugai said. “Really, it was an ideal piece of work; it’s hard to have any complaint.”
Sodashi has won a Group 1 race in each of her three seasons to race and her upcoming assignment is an attempt to win the Victoria Mile for a second year in succession. But she is not the only leading lady in the race: she must face last year’s G1 Oka Sho and G1 Yushun Himba heroine Stars On Earth; then there is the 2022 Yasuda Kinen winner Songline and the G1 Shuka Sho scorer Stunning Rose.
But every leading lady has a leading man and in Lane Sodashi has been paired with a jockey who has become a headline act in his short-term stints in Japan. Already a proven top-class rider in Australia, his form since he landed back in Japan last month has been brilliant.
Lane has notched a total of 128 wins in Japan at a 23.8 percent strike rate, and this year he has 17 wins on the board from just 59 rides, representing a near 29 percent strike rate. Two weekends ago he bagged seven wins from 14 rides across two days.
Australian jockey Damian Lane is hot property in Japan. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)
Sodashi, the first white thoroughbred to ever win a G1 race. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)
Sodashi wins the G1 Victoria Mile of 2022. (Photo by Shuhei Okada)
That dropped off last weekend when he endured eight consecutive beaten favourites to emerge with one win across the Saturday and Sunday. But it is clear that Japan’s racing fans recognise his talent and are keen to include his rides in their wagers, ensuring that a good number of his mounts perhaps start at shorter odds than they should.
At Tokyo on NHK Mile Cup day, the crowd’s reactions said it all. His win on 1.7 favourite Avion d’Or in race three was met with excited shouts; and in the next, when he was beaten half a length into second, the loud, collective ‘Oooh’ from his followers was obvious to the ears. If ever a Lane mount was in with a chance in the straight, the shouting intensified, only to give way to more ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ on a day that for once did not go his way.
“It was a tough weekend as a whole,” Lane told Asian Racing Report outside the jockeys’ room. “But it’s always great to ride a winner; unfortunately, a couple of races didn’t go right and in a few races the horses didn’t perform. You can’t have seven-winner weekends like I had the week before all the time.
“I think the expectation is so high it can make it a little bit difficult,” he continued, but emphasised that he is not fazed. “It’s not easy to win a race here anytime, so I’m happy with a winner for the weekend and I’m really pleased with how things have gone here in the time I’ve been back.
“The fans have been great. I don’t sense that expectation from the crowd when I’m riding, but it’s hard to miss the odds when you walk out into the mounting yard.”
Damian Lane at Tokyo Racecourse. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Lane is famously cool and measured in his manner and that unflappability is a significant element in what has made him a sought-after Group 1 jockey. He will carry an extra weight of expectation in the Victoria Mile, given Sodashi’s enormous celebrity appeal, and perhaps more so given that he has been booked in place of her hitherto ever-present partner Hayato Yoshida.
Lane flew home on Sunday evening to attend the funeral of fallen jockey Dean Holland in Melbourne and was due to return to Japan on Thursday, hence the understudy Sakai filling in for the midweek gallop beneath the verdant mountains that shelter Ritto within a tranquil pocket east of Kyoto’s urban rim.
Not all Sodashi fans were happy with the decision to replace Yoshida with Lane, but the man the Australians call ‘Frosty’ will get his chance to win over any of the disgruntled within the mare’s fan club if he can bring out the Grace Kelly in Sodashi, and prove that he is her Cary Grant.
The rockstar, the singer-songwriter and the pop princess: Naosuke Sugai – Japan’s super producer
‘Majime’ – The Japanese word that defines Damian Lane’s success
EXCLUSIVE: Sodashi has a new rider as Damian Lane booked to partner ‘White Wonder’
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