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After Equinox’s brilliant Arima Kinen victory emphasised the wonder of top-level racing in Japan, Asian Racing Report looks back on 2022 and ranks its five most memorable Japanese racing moments of the year.
There is something pure and eminently hope-filled about a first-time winner. But when that horse is by a star stallion out of a champion race mare and then achieves something out of the ordinary in the winning, then the hope turns to lofty expectation and in that there is a moment of rare magic.
Liberty Island was already on the radar as a daughter of the Group 1-winning Australian mare Yankee Rose and the star galloper Duramente who looked set for a storied stallion career until his early death at age nine. Even so, the filly’s incredible debut success at Niigata in July was extraordinary.
The Mitsumasa Nakauchida-trained juvenile sped through the final 600 metres of the 1600-metre newcomers contest in 31.4 seconds, and that was the fastest any horse of any age had ever been clocked at through that closing split on the JRA circuit.
Liberty Island was beaten next time when second to Ravel in the G3 Artemis Stakes when her rider, the champion-designate Yuga Kawada, did not have his sharpest moment at a crucial juncture. But she put that behind her emphatically when she wrapped up her debut campaign with an impressive success in the G1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies.
Her trainer has said she is the best filly he has trained and she will be aimed at the Oka Sho.
It was a year of memorable moments for apprentice jockey Seina Imamura: her first winner, at Chukyo in March; her first Group race win, in record time atop T M Spada in the 1200-metre G3 CBC Sho in early July; her 44th win, on Festes Band at Niigata in late October, that gave her the record number of wins in a season by a female JRA jockey; her first Group 1 ride on Ska Paradise in the Hopeful Stakes at year-end.
But the moment with the real magic came at Chukyo on December 17. That 1800-metre newcomers race win on the dirt placed Imamura in rare company as only the fifth JRA apprentice to ride 50 winners in their rookie season.
The 19-year-old’s victory on Vendaval V Rabiar placed her alongside not only Takemi Kaga, the first to achieve the feat in 1960, but also the great Yutaka Take (1987), the multiple champion Yuichi Fukunaga (1996) and the record-holder Kosei Miura, who blazed to 91 wins in 2008.
Imamura joining that elite list is an important milestone for her personally but also in the advancement of women on the JRA circuit. With Nanako Fujita’s annual win tally having dropped off to single digits since she peaked at 43 in 2019, it is important that the baton is taken on and Imamura is placed to carry it through 2023 and beyond.
While the Tokyo Yushun winner Do Deuce was last seen getting bogged down in Longchamp’s autumn mud (Japan’s Arc quest will continue into 2023) Equinox, the horse that was runner-up to him in the Derby, stepped out from his summer break to represent the classic crop against his elders in the G1 Tenno Sho Autumn. Talk about epic: it was one of those races that should make the ‘greatest races’ lists for decades to come.
Japan’s Dubai Turf hero Panthalassa blazed from the gate under his regular rider Yutaka Yoshida and nothing could, or dared, go with him when he started to open up down the back side. The five-year-old was at least 15 lengths clear when turning for home, with Equinox under Christophe Lemaire about 20 lengths off him.
The pack closed through an intense stretch run as the crowd lifted. Panthalassa was still five lengths up with 200 metres to go but his stride was shortening desperately and Equinox was powering intently. The three-year-old collared Panthalassa three strides from the line for a famous win.
The race epitomised so much of what is great about Group 1 racing in Japan, the strong field, the high tempo, the whipped-up crowd, the bravery and brilliance of the best horses. And it heralded the emergence of a new star: Equinox proved that when he returned on Christmas Day with his dominant win in the Arima Kinen, which suggested Japan might well have a bona fide standout champion in action through 2023.
Yutaka Take has delivered his share of magical moments down the years but his sixth Tokyo Yushun last May brought with it a heavy dose of feelgood.
The living legend, 53, got his timing spot on: his first Derby win in nine years came on the day Tokyo racecourse opened its doors to a restricted number of 60,000 fans after two years of Derby Day lockouts due to Covid pandemic measures.
Do Deuce did the leg work but Take steered his mount through a perfect run: at first settled back in the field but ahead of race favourite Equinox; angled wide for a clear run up the testing, rising straight; his stick switched smoothly from right to left and back again, strikes delivered sparingly; and Do Deuce responded willingly.
The fact that Do Deuce has since shown that he was perhaps not the most talented horse in the race (see Equinox) only adds to the magic of Take’s achievement in winning a sixth Derby, in his 50s, to go with his previous blue riband wins in his 20s, 30s and 40s.
Winning the premier Classic in each of four different decades has added an extra topping of the near-mythological to his reputation; outsiders might see him as Japan’s Lester Piggott or Bill Shoemaker but to Japan’s racing fans, he is the one and only Yutaka.
Japan’s horsemen arrived in Dubai in March on a conquering roll: breakthrough wins at the Breeders’ Cup the previous autumn preceded the usual victories in Hong Kong, and then came four wins at the Saudi Cup meeting in February. But Riyadh was just a springboard to an incredible five wins on the Dubai World Cup’s eight-race card.
Bathrat Leon set the ball rolling in the Godolphin Mile, then came Stay Foolish in the Dubai Gold Cup, Crown Pride took the UAE Derby, Panthalassa shared the Dubai Turf spoils and Shahryar made off with the Dubai Sheema Classic.
It was an epic achievement all-round. But the standout moment of magic came when Panthalassa made all in trademark style and had just enough in reserve to dead-heat with the charging British opponent Lord North, a whisker ahead of the flashing home Vin De Garde in third, also for Japan.
The race was a thriller and although it was a shared win, the moment was a big one for Yoshito Yahagi as it sealed a three-timer following the trainer’s earlier scores with Bathrat Leon and Stay Foolish. The three-time JRA leading trainer – at that juncture – had gained global kudos when sending out Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine to their Breeders’ Cup wins but his Dubai trio lifted his profile higher still.
That Group 1 victory put him on the winners’ platform alongside the long-established international big-name, John Gosden. That moment at Meydan hit home the reality that Japan’s top trainers are right up there with the world’s best and that Yahagi is so much more than the caricatured man with the eye-catching hats.
Oju Chosan’s legend was already assured before 2022 dawned but last April he added further lustre to his reputation with one last display of his exceptional talent. A sixth victory in the Nakayama Grand Jump was indeed a moment of magic, and a feat in that great race likely never to be exceeded. The great steeplechaser’s retirement send-off in front of thousands of fans after his final race at Nakayama on Christmas Eve was testament to the affection in which he will be long remembered.
Yuga Kawada had his own memorable moment when he sealed a first JRA jockeys championship to end the year. The 37-year-old topped the standings with 143 wins to cap a season that featured an Oka Sho win on Stars On Earth, and further Group 1 scores on Danon Scorpion and Liberty Island.
Meanwhile, the Nakauchida stable has plenty to look forward to in 2023 with Serifos being another star on the rise. The G1 Racing-owned colt proved his Group 1 merit when victorious in the Mile Championship in late November and looks set for an international campaign in the coming months: Sydney’s Doncaster Handicap has been mentioned as one possible destination, while the Dubai Turf at Meydan is another viable option.
Titleholder was the star of the spring season and he was merciless with his relentless front-end gallop that carried him to an unforgettable seven-length win in the G1 Tenno Sho Spring over two miles. That came under jockey Kazuo Yokoyama whose father and grandfather also won the race.
Then there was ‘unicorn’ magic at Tokyo in May when the ‘White Wonder’ Sodashi earned a Group 1 win as a four-year-old in the Victoria Mile, having landed the Oka Sho at three and the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies at two.
And the progressive filly Geraldina provided some mother-daughter memories when she followed in the footsteps of her champion dam Gentildonna to win the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Hanshin in November.
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