The two-turn listed stakes filled with 13 colts is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. ET and is available on TwinSpires!
LAS VEGAS — There is a video that has been trending in racing circles for the past couple weeks. Word of mouth has made it a must-see for anyone looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby.
It came from what otherwise might have been an obscure Grade 3 race in Japan. It was a one-turn mile June 21 at Tokyo that went the first 100 yards on the turf before joining the counterclockwise dirt track.
What made this video and this race extraordinary was the horse that broke from the far outside in gate 16. He effortlessly stalked the pace on a five-wide backstretch trip, drawing even with a quarter-mile to go. When he switched leads the turn of foot was eye-popping.
With Australian jockey Damian Lane urging him with a right-handed crop, Café Pharoah pulled away to a five-length victory. Racing into fractions of :23, :46.1 and 1:10.5, he won the Unicorn Stakes in 1:34.9, a time made more notable by the fact the clock started not after a run-up but the moment the latches were sprung on the gate.
It caught the eye in New Jersey of Paul Pompa Jr. “It was very impressive,” he said. “I was rooting for him.”
For good reason. Pompa bred Café Pharoah in Kentucky, and they may be reunited Labor Day weekend at Churchill Downs.
Sired by 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah out of Pompa’s More Than Ready broodmare Mary’s Follies, the undefeated Café Pharoah has already clinched Japan’s berth in the Kentucky Derby. He will be favored to run his record to 4-for-4 on Wednesday with a victory in the 1 1/4-mile $418,344 Japan Dirt Derby.
The clockwise, two-turn listed stakes filled with 13 colts is scheduled for 7:05 a.m. ET at Oi Racecourse in Tokyo. Although it is a points race on Japan’s Road to the Kentucky Derby, the result will not change Café Pharoah’s invitation.
The question now is whether his connections will accept it.
“They have been asking us questions,” Churchill Downs racetrack spokesman Darren Rogers said. “So we’re viewing that as a positive indicator.”
If only Café Pharoah had not been foaled three years before a pandemic. The word from Japan is that owner Koichi Nishikawa wants to make the trip, that trainer Noriyuki Hori is indifferent about it, and that travel restrictions as volatile as the coronavirus itself could make or break any plans to run for the roses.
The red tape in getting Café Pharoah from Japan back to his old Kentucky home would have to start with a week in quarantine. Then a flight to Chicago for another two days in isolation. Then a van ride to Louisville.
“They should get him here at least three weeks ahead of time and get him acclimated to Churchill,” Pompa said Monday in a telephone conversation from Somerset County, N.J. “Then they should treat him like a nice horse, because he is a nice horse.”
Without enduring a two-week quarantine period of his own, Hori might not be allowed to come to America, creating yet another obstacle that could be a deal breaker. But some bettors seem to feel that the travel hurdles, and not Tiz The Law or Honor A. P., are the biggest threats to Café Pharoah winning the Derby. They have taken the risk, leading Circa Sports to cut his odds to 28-1 in its future book. William Hill Nevada has him at 16-1.
A part-owner of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, Pompa sold Café Pharoah for $475,000 at last year’s Ocala March sale of 2-year-olds in training.
“The first year that American Pharaoh was offered, Coolmore was doing a 2-for-1 deal,” Pompa said. “I bred him to two of our mares. Sustained had a horse named Turned Around that is doing very well under Linda Rice in New York. And then Mary’s Follies had this other horse. You can’t keep them all, so I catalogued him, and the price was right. We got $475,000 for him, and he went to Japan. All of a sudden you read periodicals and people call me, and they tell me he’s doing well.”
Aside from Café Pharoah, Pompa has a Derby hopeful that he bought at a separate Ocala sale last spring for $450,000. Maiden winner Country Grammer races out of Chad Brown’s stable and will try to get to Churchill Downs via the $100,000 Peter Pan Stakes (G3) next Thursday on Saratoga’s opening day.
“He seems to like Saratoga,” Pompa said. “He’s by (2014 Belmont Stakes winner) Tonalist, so he can get the distance, you know?”
With the announcement last month that Churchill Downs will allow spectators at the Kentucky Derby under certain limits, Pompa is hopeful of being there, especially if he has to split his allegiance between a horse that he bought and another that he sold.
“If (Café Pharoah) is in the race I would have to go anyway, because I’m the breeder,” he said. “That would be fun to go to Churchill again.”