Triple Crowns create indelible memories. So do the near-misses. And they are not limited to North America.
Japan is in the midst of an unforgettable racing season. Part of it is because of the unfortunately empty grandstands that are normally brought to life by the sport’s most joyful noise, namely the nation’s fervently loyal horse lovers.
It is also because of what is being done by a lean 3-year-old colt named Contrail. Make that the undefeated Contrail.
We will not know how the story turns out until this fall. For now Contrail is two-thirds of the way to becoming the eighth horse to sweep Japan’s turf classics. Then again he could be the 17th to win the 2,000 Guineas (G1 Satsuki Shō) and the Japanese Derby (G1 Tokyo Yūshun) only to come up short in the St. Leger (G1 Kikuka Shō).
One way or another Contrail is evoking comparisons to the flashpoint spring in the career of his grandsire Sunday Silence, a horse that became the greatest stallion in Japanese racing history after his unrequited flirtation with the U.S. Triple Crown. So far the story from Japan in 2020 is playing like the American original in 1989, complete with an arch rival that, by the way, is also a grandson of Sunday Silence.
Contrail parlayed a half-length victory in the 11/4-mile Guineas on April 19 into a three-length win in the 1 1/2-mile Derby on May 31. Those two races brought his career earnings to $4.4 million from just five starts for 16-time Grade 1-winning trainer Yoshito Yahagi. Each time Contrail broke free from the pack in the homestretch, winding up in a two-horse race. And each time that other horse was Salios, the rival that Contrail also bested in a voting duel for Japan’s best 2-year-old colt of 2019.
“He still has room for improvement,” Contrail’s regular jockey Yuichi Fukunaga said right after the Derby. “He tends to lose his focus when he’s leading, but he is still able to win. So he’s got great potential, and there’s a lot to look forward to.”
Weighing barely 1,000 pounds, he is not physically imposing like so many champions before him. But Contrail has a turn of foot and a tenacity that brings to mind his grandsire. And Salios’s grandsire. And the grandsire of 2011 Triple Crown winner Orfèvre. And the sire of Contrail’s own sire – 2005 Triple Crown champion Deep Impact.
It seems all Japanese racing roads and pedigrees lead to Sunday Silence, don’t they? And if Contrail was not forever linked to Salios through their legendary granddad, they are inextricably linked by their rivalry, one that brings to mind Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer.
Memories of 1989. Sunday Silence’s decisive move on the turn that led to victory in a muddy Kentucky Derby. An eyeball-to-eyeball duel for the ages, perhaps the greatest finish in Preakness history, that was barely won by Sunday Silence. Easy Goer surging at the quarter pole to win the Belmont Stakes and extend the Triple Crown drought to the 11th of 37 years.
Even though he could not finish in New York what he had started in Kentucky and Maryland, Sunday Silence still earned the notice of Zenya Yoshida. The legendary horse owner/breeder bought a quarter-share, and then eventually the rest of Sunday Silence. So the champion colt was off to Japan, where he would become the nation’s top stallion 14 years in a row. The streak started just after Yoshida died, and it ran six years past his own death in 2002.
Now Sunday Silence’s grandsons have awakened the 31-year-old echoes of that rivalry on the other side of the world with Easy Goer.
Just like his grandsire, Contrail came out of the second jewel of his Triple Crown bid with a five-race winning streak. Just like Easy Goer, Salios had a three-race winning streak snapped; in this case it was against what is literally his blood rival.
But unlike their 1989 predecessors, Contrail, Salios, and any other contestants must wait a while before they settle this Triple Crown. The St. Leger is not until Oct. 25. It has nothing to do with the coronavirus. That is when the race is normally scheduled.
Unlike the five-week test of durability in a normal year in the U.S., the Japanese Triple Crown is a six-month cliffhanger that rewards focus and patience – not to mention the horse that can handle the 1 7/8-mile climax at Kyoto. Yes, like America in years when tradition is not interrupted by a pandemic, Japan’s classics end with a stayers race.
Since Deep Impact won the Triple Crown 15 years ago, the sire side of Contrail’s pedigree says that he may handle the added distance of the St. Leger. His speed probably came from his Kentucky-bred dam Rhodochrosite, a sprinter by the late American champion stallion Unbridled’s Song out of former Breeders’ Cup winner Folklore.
One thing seems for sure. Even though he would certainly be welcomed into the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) on Oct. 4 in Paris or the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) on Nov. 7 at Keeneland, Contrail is being aimed by Yahagi and owner Shinji Maeda to staying home and becoming an undefeated Triple Crown winner.
For now we just hurry up and wait to see if he can go one better than grandpa.