With Cafe Pharoah named as an individual betting interest in this weekend’s Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW), the prospect of Japan’s newest dirt star heading to Churchill Downs just got a little more tangible.

Kentucky-bred Cafe Pharoah is the kind of standout that the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby ideally hoped to attract since its inauguration in 2017. Koichi Nishikawa’s colorbearer is a perfect 3-for-3 so far, his wins accomplished by different means, but in impressive style, with a new rider aboard each time.

Pedigree and background

As his name implies, Cafe Pharoah is by 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. He was bred by Paul Pompa Jr., who acquired his dam, Mary’s Follies, in the midst of her sophomore campaign. A dual-surface performer, Mary’s Follies scored her marquee wins on turf in the 2009 Mrs. Revere (G2) and Boiling Springs (G3), but she also won on dirt and placed in a pair of stakes on the main track, the Just Smashing at Monmouth as well as the off-the-turf Lake George (G3).

The More Than Ready mare was already a successful producer before Cafe Pharoah burst onto the scene. Mary’s Follies is responsible for Pompa’s multiple graded turf winners Night Prowler and Regal Glory (who runs in Saturday’s Just a Game [G1] at Belmont).

Cafe Pharoah was offered as a 2-year-old in training at OBS March, where he drilled a quarter in :21 1/5 at the under tack show. Narvick International went to $475,000 to purchase the bay colt and bring him to Japan.

Trainer Noriyuki Hori, currently second overall in the JRA standings, has experience in sending stable stars abroad. His former Japanese Horse of the Year Maurice won three majors in Hong Kong. Neorealism and Satono Crown likewise starred at Sha Tin (the latter upsetting Highland Reel), and Real Impact successfully took his game to Australia for the 2015 George Ryder (G1). Hori’s yet to break through on Dubai World Cup night, but his champion colt Duramente was runner-up in the 2016 Dubai Sheema Classic (G1).

Smashing career debut

Cafe Pharoah debuted as the even-money favorite Dec. 14 at Nakayama, where he demolished a field of fellow newcomers at about 9 furlongs. Under British ace Ryan Moore, he took full advantage of his tactical speed and rail post to set the pace. He was tractable enough to let the competition keep up until turning into the stretch, when he left them in his dust.

Not only did Cafe Pharoah draw off by 10 lengths, but runner-up Barnard Loop was himself nine lengths clear of the rest. Barnard Loop has since won three straight, including the May 6 Hyogo Championship.

Connections nominated Cafe Pharoah to the Triple Crown by the early deadline, a hopeful if not conclusive sign regarding intent.

Late-blooming Hyacinth

Cafe Pharoah took the very next opportunity to try the Japan Road, in the Feb. 23 Hyacinth around Tokyo’s metric mile. Backers of the 11-10 favorite had an anxious moment when he missed the break, but jockey Mirco Demuro had the poise to let the colt regroup in last and not make the mistake of rushing up. Cafe Pharoah responded to the good handling, found his rhythm at the back, and made a sustained, sweeping move out wide to win with a bit in hand.

Japan Road developments

Cafe Pharoah did not run in the Mar. 28 Fukuryu at Nakayama, originally the final stop on the Japan Road. But his presence still loomed large as the fifth-placer from the Hyacinth, Herrschaft, posted an upset.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Kentucky Derby, there was now time to add two key races to the Japan Road – the June 21 Unicorn (G3), over the same track and trip as the Hyacinth, and the July 8 Japan Dirt Derby at Oi Racecourse.

Unicorn no myth

The Unicorn has a history of showcasing Japan’s top dirt 3-year-olds, and Cafe Pharoah added his name to the honor roll in emphatic fashion. Post 16 could have put him in a tough spot, but he broke well for Australian rider Damian Lane, had the gears to perch in a good stalking spot, and the racing manners to relax awaiting his cue.

The even-money favorite traveled conspicuously well, despite the fast pace. Indeed, the others who raced prominently all faded, except for Cafe Pharoah who still had power to deliver the coup de grace by five lengths. Bolstering the visual impression of drawing clear, Cafe Pharoah clocked the metric mile in 1:34.9, a stakes-record time.

The Unicorn ensured that Cafe Pharoah would clinch the Japan Road invitation, adding 40 points to his 30 from the Hyacinth for a total of 70. The one remaining race, the Japan Dirt Derby, is worth only 40 to the winner, and the aforementioned Herrschaft has been ruled out.  

It remains to be seen if Cafe Pharoah opts to run in the Japan Dirt Derby. If so, the about 1 1/4-mile test could serve up a rematch with Unicorn runner-up Dieu du Vin, who barreled home fastest of all. Dieu du Vin posted a field-best final three-furlong time of :35.5, compared to Cafe Pharoah’s :36.4. Obviously Cafe Pharoah expended far more energy early than Dieu du Vin, in a race that set up for off-the-pace types, and he remained well clear of the pretty smart runner-up. Still, it would be instructive to see them meet again over further.

Note Full Flat, the Unicorn sixth. He was the fifth-placer in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) who upset the Saudi Derby on Saudi Cup Day, beating next-out Newmarket S. winner Mishriff and 1000 Guineas (G1) fourth Final Song. Americans Rowdy Yates and Billy Batts wound up fourth and seventh, respectively. Not that the collateral form is trustworthy, but it’s better to have international reference points than not.

Hint from a Master

There’s also a very encouraging extrapolation that can be made from the past two Japanese shippers to try U.S. Triple Crown races, neither of whom had the cache of Cafe Pharoah.

In 2019, Master Fencer became the first to take up a Japan Road invitation to the Derby, not as the overall points leader, but top scorer among the Triple Crown nominees. By turning in solid efforts in defeat in last year’s Derby (promoted to sixth) and Belmont (G1) (fifth) – without being the best in his own division at home – Master Fencer hinted that a superior Japanese 3-year-old would be a player in the American classics.

A similar point is made by Lani (2016), who preceded the creation of the Japan Road. Only fifth behind Gold Dream in his edition of the Hyacinth, Lani was not exceptional at home. He booked his ticket to Churchill by taking a less than vintage UAE Derby (G2), and went on to finish ninth in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Preakness (G1), and third in the Belmont.

The trailblazer to try the Derby from Japan, Ski Captain (1995), does not offer a meaningful comparison. He did have top form, but on turf, and his dirt experiment resulted in a 14th behind Thunder Gulch.

Kentucky Derby outlook

From a KDFW perspective, Cafe Pharoah is a proper contender in the Kentucky Derby. He’ll be trying to win off a longer layoff than advisable if a horse were training in U.S. conditions – either June 21 or July 8 – but I wouldn’t be worried about Hori’s presenting him fit.

Aside from the usual caveats of the potential for setbacks, an unexpected loss, or the uncertainty of whether an international runner actually makes the trip, the concern is the cauldron that is the Derby experience.

To be sure, Cafe Pharoah has gotten a better dirt education than, say, Irish shipper Mendelssohn did in his 2018 UAE Derby rout. His ability to position himself, and to overcome less than favorable circumstances, speaks well of his talent and of his character.

Yet for nitpicking purposes, it must be said that his adversity was self-imposed in the Hyacinth, and prior to the Unicorn, he was a bit too keyed up and sweating on the neck. Neither mattered then, but Cafe Pharoah will have novelties to deal with in the preliminaries if he lines up at Churchill Downs.

We’d have a final piece of evidence if he runs back in the July 8 Japan Dirt Derby.