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Vela Azul’s unlikely rise foils European hopes in a messy Japan Cup

Ryan Moore finds a clear route amid the chaos to nail the Japan Cup on a late bloomer with an unusual background befitting a strange renewal of the JRA’s big international feature.

It was supposed to be the best opportunity in years for a European horse to win the Japan Cup but Japan’s ‘B Team’ ensured a home victory at Tokyo on Sunday as Vela Azul, the one-time dirt tracker of middling repute, charged late under Ryan Moore for a Japanese clean-sweep of the top five places.

There was nothing too clean about the bustling, bumping, snatching, stop-start run down the home straight, though. And, while the Europeans were put in their place for the 17th year in succession, Japan’s resident French champion Christophe Lemaire was clear in his belief that Gallic raider Onesto was ‘unlucky’ not to win.

Moore, was a half-gap away from singing a similar tune post-race with his mount climbing off the back of a wall of heels, but where Lemaire was left searching for open ground, his English counterpart was blessed with enough of an opening to burst between rivals and clear the field.

The Carrot Farm-owned Vela Azul gave Moore his second Japan Cup, following Gentildonna in 2013, and handed his 47-year-old trainer Kunihiko Watanabe his biggest career success by far in his eighth season with a JRA licence.

Vela Azul’s rise to win Japan’s international major is an unlikely tale. The five-year-old debuted in the March of his third year and raced 16 times on dirt for two wins until switching belatedly to turf at Hanshin in March of this season. His progress since has been meteoric: six starts for four wins and two thirds.

Watanabe spoke post-race about the challenges he faced with Vela Azul in his youth after the horse suffered a fracture, and the reasoning behind his initial dirt track focus.

“He missed his peak years,” the trainer said. “We built him back up on the dirt, he’s a heavy horse so we thought the dirt would be better for him.”    

Moore was impressed with how Vela Azul ‘got me out of trouble’ and quickened to win by three quarters of a length, with the Sunday Racing-owned pair Shahryar and Weltreisende second and third.

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Champion jockey Ryan Moore and Vela Azul took the spoils at Tokyo. (Photo by @alegria_329 via Twitter)

“It was the first time I’d sat on my horse, he’s come off the dirt, he’s been progressive and he’s surprised me with a turn-of-foot,” Moore said, after his mount clocked a winning time of 2m 23.7s for the 2400 metres.

“It was an unusual Japan Cup: they went slow and the race didn’t develop until quite late. There was no way of getting out, so it was just (a case of) praying that we’d find some space and he’s won that very comfortably. Usually, they’re a bit more sorted out, the pace was just a steady one and never got going until we got into the straight. It was just a messy race.”

Lemaire was in full agreement on that point.

“It was unusual, such a slow pace,” he said. “When the race is slow like this, on a fast track, the straight is always tight for room; the horses are too close. The winner was lucky and the other horse is a bit unlucky.

“Onesto was travelling very well. He’s more of a mile and a quarter type and he travelled very easily. He was ready to use his good turn of foot but I couldn’t find the room to let him stretch. He finished seventh without using his full tank so it’s a bit frustrating. But he’s a three-year-old and whatever opportunities come up over a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half, he can go for it. He’s definitely Group 1 level and he will win a big one soon.”

The JRA stewards picked through the mess and handed Cristian Demuro nine racing days for careless riding on Shahryar. The Italian’s mount was judged to have shifted inwards and impeded the 4.2 favourite Danon Beluga, whose jockey Yuga Kawada snatched up sharply and lost vital lengths when still in contention for third spot. Kawada, stern-faced to the press pack, kept his thoughts on the interference to himself.   

Demuro will be side-lined from December 10 to December 18 and will miss two Group 1 races, the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies’ and the Asahi Hai Futurity.

Before that tough penalty was handed down, a deflated Demuro reflected on Shahryar’s run, which saw the Japanese Derby and Dubai Sheema Classic winner quicken to the lead with 150 metres to go, only for Vela Azul to run him down.

“My horse is a strong horse; he did a good job,” Demuro said. “We had a bad draw but we had the perfect race behind Danon Beluga and I took advantage of that but Ryan came so fast. My horse improved from the Tenno Sho but we found a good horse against us today.

“I think the Sheema Classic again if he comes back good.”  

With Daring Tact fourth and Danon Beluga an unfortunate fifth, Grand Glory – fifth last year – led home the four-horse European challenge in sixth. The German three-year-old Tunnes was ninth as Simca Mille, also from France, faded to 15th of 18.

There had been a drop-off in the calibre of European contenders in the past ten to 15 years: Danedream in 2011 was the last genuinely top-class star to take on the challenge and placed sixth.

This year’s Arc winner Alpinista gave optimism to the European cause until she was ruled out a couple of weeks ago, but confidence among the overseas raiders was buoyant nonetheless in the lead-up to the race, due to an apparent lack of a standout runner among the Japanese cohort: headliners like Titleholder, Equinox, Efforia and the rising star Geraldina were all pointed instead towards the G1 Arima Kinen on Christmas Day.

But such is the depth to Japan’s top ranks at a mile and a half, that even with the ‘A Team’ absent, Europe’s Japan Cup ambitions were knocked back for yet another year.

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