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Grape Brandy packs a punch in February Stakes

Grape Brandy, shown winning last month, is nominated to the Godolphin Mile (Japan Racing Association)
Trainer Takayuki Yasuda had identified Grape Brandy as a potential heir apparent to Transcend, his recently-retired dirt star, and the five-year-old son of Manhattan Cafe lent some substance to that hope with a blistering late run in Sunday's Grade 1 February Stakes at Tokyo. After switching off kindly in midpack for Suguru Hamanaka, Grape Brandy kicked into high gear in deep stretch to collar Espoir City by three-quarters of a length.

A Shadai homebred, Grape Brandy is only now fulfilling his early promise that had been interrupted by injury. The dark bay had emerged as a three-year-old to follow in 2011, finishing runner-up in the Grade 3 Unicorn before capturing the Japan Dirt Derby. Unfortunately, just when he was beginning to peak, Grape Brandy then suffered a fracture in his right fore.

Sidelined for nearly 10 months, he returned to racing last May, but took some time to regain his form. Although Grape Brandy won a minor event at Kokura in August, he was still not quite himself when third in the Grade 3 Sirius and unplaced in both the Grade 3 Miyako and Grade 1 Japan Cup Dirt.

But Grape Brandy turned the corner following his brief winter break. In his 2013 debut, he rallied impressively to a three-length win the Grade 2 Tokai TV Hai Tokai at about nine furlongs on the Chukyo dirt. Yasuda was not concerned about the slight cutback to a flat mile here, expecting a lively pace to set up his late kick, and so it proved.

Taisei Legend went straight to the front, all the while under relentless pressure from the veteran Espoir City, winner of the 2010 February. The eight-year-old Espoir City disposed of his pace rival turning into the stretch and shot clear, as if to reprise his former glory.

But Grape Brandy would not allow him to turn back the clock so easily. Signaling a changing of the guard on the dirt scene, Grape Brandy finished with a flourish to win going away and thereby emulated Transcend, who garnered the 2011 February. Grape Brandy's final time of 1:35.1 was not far off the stakes record of 1:34.6 held by Success Brocken (2009).

Espoir City salvaged second by a neck from the late-running Wonder Acute. Sei Crimson reported home fourth, defending champion Testa Matta wound up seventh, Ijigen was compromised by a poor start back in 12th, and favored Curren Black Hill bombed in his dirt debut when only 15th of 16.

Grape Brandy sports a mark of 16-7-4-1, 296,751,000. He is an aptly-named son of Wine and Rose, a winning daughter of Judge Angelucci, from the family of multiple Argentinean Group 1 winner Blue Baby Blue.

Grape Brandy has more to do to fill the shoes of champion Transcend, a two-time Japan Cup Dirt winner who missed narrowly in the 2011 Group 1 Dubai World Cup. His natural end-of-the-year objective is the December 1 Japan Cup Dirt, but in the meantime, he has been nominated to the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on Dubai World Cup night March 30.

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