Shirl's Speight takes on leading Japanese dirt horses in Tokyo

February 17th, 2023

It’s a significant day of racing at Tokyo racecourse in Japan, with two features that have relevance to North America.

The main race of the day, the February Stakes (G1) on dirt, is a Breeders’ Cup Challenge qualifier for the Classic (G1), and there is extra interest this year with the North American-trained Shirl’s Speight having crossed the Pacific for the race.

The other feature is the Hyacinth Stakes, the third of four races in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series. Here are some plays for both races.

Race 9, 12:25 a.m Sunday ET: Hyacinth Stakes (Listed), Dirt, 1,600 meters (about one mile), 3yos

The third race in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series, it features only two horses that scored points in the first two races: #7 Omatsuri Otoko, narrowly beaten by Derma Sotogake in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun in December, and #3 Perriere, a close third in the same race. For both horses it was their only defeat on dirt, and they can be expected to run well again.

The field of 14 includes two U.S.-breds, both by Into Mischief. Perhaps the most interesting is #6 Great Sand Sea, winner of his only start. He had just a neck to spare that day, but the pair were nine lengths clear of the rest so he could be one to watch. The other, #9 Meta Max, won his dirt debut Jan. 21, but it was over five furlongs and it’s hard to know his prospects at a mile.

Many of the other runners appear to have some ground to make up on Omatsuri Otoko and Perriere. A couple that may have prospects are #2 Crockford, an easy winner at Nakayama Dec. 24, and #8 Goraiko, winner of his last two. But for now I’m going to stick with Omatsuri Otoko to go one better.

  • $10 win/$30 show: #7 Omatsuri Otoko

Race 11, 1:40 a.m. Sunday ET: February Stakes (G1), Dirt, 1,600 meters, 4yos and up

The big question for North Americans is how Canadian raider #2 Shirl’s Speight will fare in Japan. The first overseas runner to contest this race, there’s no doubting his class, as a Maker’s Mark Mile (G1) success and Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) second shows. What’s less known is his ability on dirt; he’s had limited opportunities, the most recent being a third behind Mind Control and Hot Rod Charlie in the Salvator Mile (G3) at Monmouth June 18.

The toughest local contender looks to be #7 Lemon Pop. In 10 races, all on dirt, the son of Lemon Drop Kid has seven wins and three seconds, and he was far too good last start in the Negishi Stakes. He will be very hard to beat.

His toughest opponent could be #4 Dry Stout. The four-year-old has won four of his six dirt starts, including the 2021 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, and was just beaten in the Subaru Stakes last start. He should be better for that run.

Veteran #15 Red le Zele, fourth in this race two years ago and second in last year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), should also be considered, as should the consistent mare #9 Shonan Nadeshiko, but I’m gong to stick with Lemon Pop.

  • $10 win/$30 show: #7 Lemon Pop
  • $1 trifecta: 7 with 2, 4, 9, 15 with 2, 4, 9, 15