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Conduit takes on formidable home team in Japan Cup

Conduit will attempt to go out in a blaze of glory in his adopted country (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
Two-time Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) hero CONDUIT (Ire) (Dalakhani) will look to put an exclamation point on his illustrious career in Sunday's approximately $6 million Japan Cup (Jpn-G1). The Sir Michael Stoute charge, who is set to retire to Shigeyuki Okada's Big Red Farm in Japan, spearheads a five-strong international team, including the American-based trio of MARSH SIDE (Gone West), JUST AS WELL (A.P. Indy) and INTERPATATION (Langfuhr).

The raiders will line up against a typically deep group of home defenders in the about 1 1/2-mile turf test at Tokyo Among the leading Japanese hopes are reigning Horse of the Year VODKA (Tanino Gimlet), defending champion SCREEN HERO (Grass Wonder), classic winner OKEN BRUCE LEE (Jungle Pocket) and talented three-year-olds RED DESIRE (Manhattan Cafe) and REACH THE CROWN (Special Week).

Since capturing the 2008 St Leger (Eng-G1) with authority, Conduit has developed into a world-class performer. The Ballymacoll Stud homebred won last year's Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita in a stakes-record time of 2:23 2/5, and in the process, locked up an Eclipse Award as America's champion turf male.

Conduit was brought along slowly in the first half of 2009, opening his campaign with a pair of races at about 1 1/4 miles. After an agonizing photo-finish loss in the Brigadier Gerard S. (Eng-G3) in his reappearance, the four-year-old finished third to European supremo Sea the Stars in the Eclipse S. (Eng-G1). Conduit then relished stretching out to his preferred trip of about 1 1/2 miles in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth S. (Eng-G1), where he led home an unprecedented trifecta for Stoute in the prestigious midsummer contest.

Freshened in advance of his autumn crescendo, Conduit returned to finish a terrific fourth to Sea the Stars in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-G1), just missing runner-up honors. He arrived at Santa Anita as the raging favorite for the Breeders' Cup Turf and did not disappoint, rallying to a half-length victory. Since then, Conduit flew to Stoute's headquarters in England to prepare for the Japan Cup.

"He was a bit lazy this morning, he always is, but he's been through a lot of traveling in a short period," Stoute said Friday. "We always knew that it was a tight schedule, we had to try and get him in good shape after the King George for the three races -- the Arc, the Breeders' Cup Turf and the Japan Cup. He hasn't done anything too severe between the races because of all the travel. It doesn't matter if he races going left or right, he's done well in both."

By virtue of his victory in the King George, and the Breeders' Cup Turf, Conduit is eligible for lucrative bonuses should he perform well in the Japan Cup. He stands to pocket a $1,368,000 bonus if he wins, a $547,000 windfall if he places second, and an extra $342,000 if he finishes third.

Regular rider Ryan Moore will guide Conduit, who is marooned out in post 16 in the 18-horse field.

Only two international shippers have managed to prevail here in the last decade -- Falbrav (Ire) in 2002 and Alkaased in 2005 -- but if anyone can break the locals' good run, it is Stoute. He ranks as the only trainer with two Japan Cups on his resume, courtesy of Singspiel (Ire) in 1996 and Pilsudski (Ire) in 1997, and a win by Conduit would extend his lead over his fellow horsemen in this title chase.

Also invading from England is SCINTILLO (Fantastic Light), winner of the Grand Prix de Chantilly (Fr-G2) back in May. A late addition to the Japan Cup field, the Richard Hannon trainee figures to go off at hefty odds in the wake of three disappointing efforts. The wily Gerald Mosse picks up the mount on the feast-or-famine type.

The three American-based horses will try to follow in the hoofsteps of Golden Pheasant, the last U.S. campaigner to lift the trophy in 1991. All three have formlines through America's divisional leader, Gio Ponti (Tale of the Cat). The seven-year-old veteran Interpatation upset Gio Ponti in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (G1) at Belmont Park last out, and the Bobby Barbara charge is out to prove that was no fluke.

"He's in wonderful condition," Barbara said. "His strongest point is that he's got a lot of heart and is resilient -- he just keeps coming back and fights all the time. He's been running for five years, and he keeps trying harder and harder. His last race, was like putting him over the top. He was very keen that day. I'm hoping that he's in good shape and could come back to another race like that he had a month ago at Belmont Park.

Marsh Side should be suited by Tokyo Racecourse (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
"He didn't really like a soft turf course early on in his life. For him to run like he did on that really soft turf course (in the Joe Hirsch) surprised me -- that he did handle the soft turf that well -- because in the years past, he wasn't that thrilled about a soft turf course."

Barbara would have preferred an inside draw, but Interpatation has drawn post 15 with new rider David Cohen.

The other Americans have chased Gio Ponti unsuccessfully. Marsh Side was runner-up to him in the Manhattan H. (G1) in June, while Just as Well played second fiddle to Gio Ponti in the Arlington Million (G1) in August. Marsh Side and Just as Well have recently clashed at Woodbine. Marsh Side crossed the wire first in the Northern Dancer Turf S. (Can-G1), only to be disqualified and placed fourth for interference in the stretch. Just as Well was then awarded the victory. Next time out in the Canadian International (Can-G1), Marsh Side finished fourth as the defending champion, with Just as Well back in fifth.

Both of their Hall of Fame trainers are happy with their charges in advance of the Japan Cup.

Marsh Side, who had to be scratched from last year's Japan Cup because of a fever, is experiencing no such difficulties this time.

"Considering that (Marsh Side) breezed yesterday, I'm pleased with his condition this morning," Neil Drysdale said. "He was moving very smoothly. I'm happy with stall number 11. After studying what our competition is like, I'll decide on what our strategy will be for the race.

"Marsh Side's strength is that he is a true mile and a half horse -- he's a galloping horse, and that's why we brought him to Tokyo. We feel the course suits him, and the course in Canada also suits him. Our tracks in California are a little bit tight for him, as he's a large horse with a big long stride."

Javier Castellano makes the trek to the Far East to maintain his partnership with Marsh Side.

Trainer Jonathan Sheppard likewise believes that Just as Well will thrive over the expansive contours of Tokyo.

"I think the fact that he finishes races strongly (is his key attribute)," Sheppard observed. "He has good stamina. He doesn't have very quick acceleration. It takes him a little bit of time to build up his top speed. And I like the fact that it's a longer stretch run here at Tokyo Racecourse than he's used to in America, because it gives him more time to reach his full stride. I think that should suit him.

"I'm pleased with his condition," Sheppard said. "Our draw (post 7) is ideal, since we were hoping for a middle stall. How he'll race will mostly be up to the jockey (Julien Leparoux), but probably he'll sit somewhere from the middle and back and close in on the stretch. I hope there's a fast pace early in the race. They say that it's going to rain on Sunday, but as long as the going isn't too soft, I don't think it'll bother him.

Vodka will make her third appearance in the Japan Cup (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
"I feel that Just as Well is coming into this race in very good condition. Because he didn't run in the Breeders' Cup, he's fresh. He's put on a little bit of weight since he's been here. I watched him work this morning on the turf course and I was very happy with the way he went. He's had a fairly busy season but as I say, he had a little bit of a break prior coming here and hopefully he's 95 percent -- as good as he can be. Whether that's good enough, I don't know. I know you have some good horses in this country."

One of those good horses is the superstar mare Vodka, who will be taking her third swing at the Japan Cup. Fourth as a sophomore filly here in 2007, and third last year, the Katsuhiko Sumii trainee has run some of the best races of her career at Tokyo. At that venue, she became the first filly to win the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (Jpn-G1) in more than six decades, won the 2008 Tenno Sho (Autumn) (Jpn-G1), crushed distaffers in the Victoria Mile (Jpn-G1) this spring, and defeated males in the past two runnings of the coveted Yasuda Kinen (Jpn-G1).

Vodka, who will break from post 5, will team up with jockey Christophe Lemaire for the first time Sunday. She had suffered defeats in her last pair with Yutaka Take aboard, finishing second in the Mainichi Okan (Jpn-G2) and most recently third with traffic trouble in the Tenno Sho (Autumn). The winner of both races, Company, boosted the form when taking the Mile Championship (Jpn-G1) last Sunday.

"Vodka has a lot of fans, and we sent her out for the Tenno Sho with the utmost care, but we came up short," exercise rider Hiroaki Kiyoyama admitted. "She ran the last three furlongs in 32.9 seconds, which was a tie for race best, and she has not lost a step, not one bit. She's been so calm recently it's even surprised us; nothing is fazing her at the moment. She recovered faster than we expected, and the owner (Y. Tanimizu) agrees that she has managed to sustain a high level of form from the Mainichi Okan to the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and now to the Japan Cup.

Screen Hero seeks to become the first two-time winner of the Japan Cup (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
"Lemaire rode her last week and now this week. We wanted him to get a feel for the horse and check on her conditioning. We think she's at the peak of her career, but her ceiling is so high I wouldn't be shocked if she got even better from here."

Screen Hero ranked as Japan's champion older horse after garnering the 2008 Japan Cup. Although the Yuichi Shikato charge has gone winless since, he returned from his summer break with a strong second in the Tenno Sho (Autumn), beating Vodka. Screen Hero must overcome post 18, however, if he is to become the first horse ever to win two Japan Cups.

"His form is just as good as last year, and he's definitely in better shape than he was for the last race," Shikato said. "I think he's had a good workout. He's more mature than he used to be, just a lot more relaxed. I know how difficult it is to win this race back-to-back, but given his form at the moment, I think we have a real opportunity here, especially on this course. (Mirco Demuro) has ridden this horse many times and he knows him well. I'm not going to tell him how to ride; it's all in his hands now."

Oken Bruce Lee is vaguely reminiscent of Conduit. Successful in the Japanese St. Leger, the Kikuka Sho (Jpn-G1), last fall, the flashy chestnut excels at distances of at least 1 1/2 miles. He checked in a creditable fifth in the 2008 Japan Cup, and has warmed up for Sunday's renewal with two solid efforts -- a victory in the Kyoto Daishoten (Jpn-G2) and a sneakily good fourth in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) over a trip shorter than ideal.

Oken Bruce Lee figures to improve at the Japan Cup distance (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
"Last year, it would take a lot of time for him to recover after races," trainer Hidetaka Otonashi said. "He only needed a week of rest this time, and working him has never been easier. That we can work him so hard speaks about the kind of form he's in at the moment. The training he had last week has paid off. The acceleration was there, the breathing was there; the work was very good today. The 2,400 meters will be a plus for him, and all we need now is an average pace. We want this to be a test of endurance. We don't want the race to come down to the stretch; a slow pace will not help him like last year's Japan Cup."

If Oken Bruce Lee prevails, his sire Jungle Pocket would rank as only the second Japan Cup winner to sire a Japan Cup winner, following the father/son tandem of Symboli Rudolf (Jpn) (1985) and Tokai Teio (1992).

Jungle Pocket was the last three-year-old to claim the spoils in 2001, but two sophomores bring credentials to emulate him this year.

The filly Red Desire was narrowly beaten by divisional leader Buena Vista (Special Week) in the Oka Sho (Japanese One Thousand Guineas) (Jpn-G1) and Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (Jpn-G1) in the spring, but Red Desire turned the tables on her archrival in the Shuka Sho (Jpn-G1) last out. Interestingly, she just missed the stakes record time posted by 1996 Shuka Sho heroine Fabulous la Fouine, who went on to finish a gallant second to Singspiel in the Japan Cup. Mikio Matsunaga, who rode Fabulous la Fouine, now conditions Red Desire.

"We're very happy with her form, and we're very confident about her conditioning," Matsunaga said. "She's got a lot of power just like Fabulous la Fouine, but the difference between the two is the temperament. I had to fight Fabulous la Fouine to settle her, but this filly never acts up and is such an easy ride. The 53 kilograms (impost of a little less than 117 pounds) is a huge advantage."

The filly Red Desire (red cap) will challenge older males (Copyright Japan Racing Association [JRA])
Red Desire thus gets a significant break in the weights from the older males, who tote 57 kilograms (about 125 pounds). Regular rider Hirofumi Shii will be aboard as she tries to make history as the first sophomore filly to claim the Japan Cup.

The three-year-old colt Reach the Crown has so far failed to deliver on his frequent promises, but the headstrong son of 1999 Japan Cup hero Special Week should not be overlooked. Runner-up to the now-injured Logi Universe (Neo Universe) in the Japanese Derby at this course and distance in May, the Kojiro Hashiguchi trainee comes off a decent fifth in the Japanese St. Leger, and Take keeps the mount.

"His movement was outstanding," Take said of a recent piece of exercise. "He was calm throughout the workout, and I don't have a single complaint today. He'll need to relax during the first half of the race, run the first five furlongs in about a minute. We're not under any kind of pressure this time, so we'll try to enjoy the race.

"With him, it really depends on the day. Some days he'll settle, some days he won't. He was out of control in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) (when fading to 13th) but in the Derby, he was at ease as soon as the gates opened. The shorter distance is certainly a plus for him. I rode him in all three Triple Crown races and I thought we would win at least one but we didn't. We have nothing to lose any more."

Also in the field are a few veterans who are capable enough on their day, including EISHIN DEPUTY (French Deputy), winner of last year's Takarazuka Kinen (Jpn-G1) who will be making just his third start back off a prolonged layoff; ASAKUSA KINGS (White Muzzle [GB]), the champion three-year-old male of 2007; and MEINER KITZ (Chief Bearhart), who upset the Tenno Sho (Spring) (Jpn-G1) in May.


 


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