Japan Cup Preview: Locals face strong foreign challenge

November 26th, 2022

For the last 16 years, Japan’s signature international race has been an impossible one for foreign raiders to wrest away.

It will be a tough task again this year. But if ever there’s been a year in recent times where the locals have looked vulnerable in the Japan Cup (G1), it’s 2022. It’s for the simple reason that most of Japan’s best 1 1/2-mile horses are not going to be there.

Japan Cup Wagers

  • $10 win/$30 show: #6 Vela Azul
  • $1 trifecta: 6, 7, 15 with 6, 7, 15 with 2, 6, 7, 14, 15

If Titleholder, Do Deuce, and Equinox were present, it would be tough to see the foreign quartet beating them home. But the first pair are recovering after failing on heavy ground in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), while Equinox, winner of the 1 1/4-mile Tenno Sho (Autumn) (G1) Oct. 30, is saving his energies for Japan’s other end-of-year feature, the Dec. 25 Arima Kinen (G1), which is worth the same amount of money as the Japan Cup.

At one point it looked as if the foreign challenge would be especially strong as Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Alpinista was being targeted at the race until injury forced her out. But the four that are making the journey – all from Europe – are decent horses.

Two of them - #5 Grand Glory and #2 Onesto – contested Alpinista’s Arc; Grand Glory finished strongly for fifth, while Onesto didn’t handle the very soft ground and finished 10th. They will likely have a much firmer surface in Tokyo; Onesto will certainly appreciate it more, while Grand Glory showed when finishing fifth in this race last year that she will handle firmer ground as well.

The other two horses making the journey from Europe are #1 Simca Mille, a close second to Onesto in the Grand Prix de Paris (G1) in July, and the outstanding German three-year-old #7 Tunnes, a half-brother to 2021 Arc hero Torquator Tasso who scored a 10-length victory in the Grosser Preis von Bayern (G1) Nov. 6. They are clearly very good horses but there is a clear question over their ability on firm ground.

Though the local challenge is a little thinner than usual, there is one proven international performer. #15 Shahryar proved his worth when winning the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) in March, beating 2021 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner Yibir. The 2021 Japanese Derby (G1) winner was third in this race last year, and though his last two efforts – fourth in the Prince of Wales’s S. (G1) at Royal Ascot and fifth in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) were below his best, they were both at 1 1/4 miles. He gets his preferred 1 1/2 miles here.

The more impressive Japan Cup trial in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) came from #14 Danon Beluga, who flashed home late for third. He’s proven at the distance, finishing fourth to Do Deuce in this year’s Japanese Derby.

The best performance in the Japanese prep races arguably came from #6 Vela Azul, who flashed home late to win the Kyoto Daishoten (G2) Oct. 10 from #18 Boccherini. His career has been like a reverse Cigar; his first 16 starts were on dirt, for an average record of two wins and seven placings, but since moving to turf this year he’s started five times for three wins and two thirds. He looked very good in the Kyoto Daishoten, and he has the added benefit of having Ryan Moore on his back on Sunday.

In what looks like an open Japan Cup, I’m supporting Vela Azul and Shahryar. Onesto is probably the most proven of the foreigners while Tunnes could be the most talented; though I have my doubts about them on firm ground, Tunnes in particular, I’m not going to leave them out of exotics.