Winning Touch? Japan Again Poised for Saudi Cup Success

Loves Only You – Photo Courtesy of Naoji Inada

Nov. 6, 2021, was a glorious day for Japanese racing. When Loves Only You took the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) at Del Mar, Yoshito Yahagi became the first Japanese trainer to win a Breeders’ Cup race. Two hours later, Marche Lorraine and Yahagi made more history with a 49-1 shocker in the Distaff (G1), the first time a Japanese-trained horse won a Grade 1 dirt race abroad.

Loves Only You Proved a Breeders’ Cup Breakthrough for Japan

Yahagi’s breakthrough stunned casual fans but not followers of international racing. Japan has been a major player on the global scene for three decades, starting with the arrival of the 1989 American Horse of the Year Suday Silence.

Importing Sunday Silence in 1991 triggered a dramatic improvement in Japanese bloodstock. As great as he was on the track – winning the 1989 Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and BC Classic – he was even better in the breeding shed. He dominated Japan’s sire standings for 13 consecutive years (1995-2007), with his last title coming five years after his death in 2002.

His son Deep Impact swept the 2005 Japanese Triple Crown and is considered Japan’s all-time best runner. Sunday Silence’s grandson Equinox was voted the world’s No. 1 horse in 2023. He clinched the title by defeating Panthalassa, last year’s Saudi Cup hero, in the Japan Cup.

Panthalassa, trained by Yahagi, is retired, but Japan has four chances to repeat in Saturday’s $20 million, 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup. American fans are familiar with three of them. Derma Sotogake and Ushba Tesoro ran in last year’s BC Classic, and Crown Pride was 13th in the 2022 Derby. The other is Japan’s 2023 champion dirt horse, Lemon Pop. Meisho Hario was entered in the race but withdrawn on Thursday. Only Lemon Pop (KY) was not bred in Japan.

Japanese trainers have 16 horses set for the card’s five other graded stakes — Saudi Derby, Riyadh Dirt Sprint, 1351 Turf Sprint, Neom Turf Cup, Red Sea Turf Handicap — with Yahagi’s undefeated Forever Young (Saudi Cup for 3-year-olds) considered their likeliest winner on the undercard.

Derma Sotogake at King Abdulaziz Racecourse

Derma Sotogake

On paper, Derma Sotogake, last year’s UAE Derby champion, and Ushba Tesoro, the 2023 Dubai World Cup hero, are Japan’s best hopes in the Saudi Cup. Unfortunately for Derma Sotogake, he suffered an eye injury on the flight from Japan, then drew post 13 in a field of 14.

“We didn’t see how it happened on the plane,” trainer Hidetaka Otonashi told, “but the nameplate on his headcollar was broken, so I think he had a fight with the other horse in the stall.”

At first Otonashi expressed concern that Derma Sotogake might have to skip the race, but he said he galloped well Wednesday morning, “so we’ve decided to go ahead.”

Derma Sotogake ran second to Saudi Cup favorite White Abarrio in the Classic six months after a creditable sixth in the Kentucky Derby. A 4-year-old with only 10 career starts, he still has plenty of upside. His stalking style would be a plus in a field with early-speed types National Treasure, Saudi Crown, Hoist the Gold, Crown Pride and Lemon Pop. But will he run?

“If he’s not affected by (the injury), he will run very well on Saturday,” Otonashi said.

Ushba Tesoro

The 7-year-old Ushba Tesoro keeps defying age. He’ll make his 33rd start after winning seven of his last eight, with the only loss a troubled fifth in the Classic. He broke last, played catchup with an extended wide move down the backstretch and bid four wide into the stretch before tiring. If he avoids trouble, he’s a serious threat.

Lemon Pop, a lightly raced 6-year-old with 10 wins and three seconds in 14 races, wired Japan’s Group 1 Champions Cup from post 15 in his first try at 1 1/8 miles. His Godolphin connections have expressed concern about his stamina against the best field that Japan’s 2023 dirt champion has faced.

Crown Pride looks like no-hoper. Crown Prince is 0-for-5 at the top level, although he was narrowly beaten by longshot by Jun Light Bolt in the 2022 Champions Cup.


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