Mizuki Noda’s Mikki Rocket capitalized on a ground-saving trip, and first run, to deny Hong Kong celebrity Werther in Sunday’s $2.955 million Takarazuka Kinen (G1) at Hanshin. Under a well-judged ride by Ryuji Wada, the 12-1 chance earned his first Grade 1 laurel in the “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1).
Mikki Rocket, whose previous highlight was a victory in the 2017 Nikkei Shinshun Hai (G2), had yet to place in six tries at the highest level. Sixth in last June’s Takarazuka Kinen, the Hidetaka Otonashi veteran signaled that he was coming close when fourth in the April 29 Tenno Sho Spring (G1) last out. His trainer took heart from that effort over a grueling two metric miles, and Mikki Rocket appreciated the cutback in trip here.
Longshot Saimon Ramesses carved out the pace as Mikki Rocket was covered up on the fence, steadily improving his position from midpack until he was poised just behind the leader. In contrast, Werther was reserved near the tail of the field from post 14, and jockey Hugh Bowman (of Winx fame) had little recourse but to attack out wide.
Turning for home, Mikki Rocket angled out to overtake the tiring Saimon Ramesses and struck the front. Satono Diamond, the nearly 3-1 favorite, loomed menacingly but flattened out. Then Werther played his hand and emerged a far greater threat. Despite making just his second start off a break, and appearing below his peak racing weight, Werther bore down relentlessly and clocked the fastest final three furlongs in :35.3.
But Mikki Rocket, assisted by the perfect trip engineered by Wada, kept finding more to keep his neck in front. By negotiating about 1 3/8 miles on the good turf course in 2:11.6, Mikki Rocket handed Wada his first Grade 1 since T.M. Opera O in the 2001 Tenno Sho Spring.
A further three lengths back in third came the unheralded 39-1 Noble Mars, who was a neck up on Vivlos. The winner’s stablemate, Danburite, checked in fifth, while Satono Diamond ended up sixth. Defending champion Satono Crown didn’t factor in 12th, and pacesetter Saimon Ramesses retreated to last of 16.
Mikki Rocket’s scorecard now stands at 22-5-6-0, also reflecting runner-up efforts in the 2016 Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2) and 2017 Chunichi Shimbun Hai (G3). His other Grade 1 attempts included a 13th in the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1) and fifth in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) during his classic campaign, as well as a seventh in last year’s Osaka Hai (G1) and a 12th in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1).
Mikki Rocket is unlikely to use his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, or his newly won spot in Australia’s Caulfield Cup (G1). His chief objective is rather at home in the November 25 Japan Cup (G1), with the October 8 Kyoto Daishoten (G2) the launching pad.
Bred by Northern Farm, the five-year-old is a son of King Kamehameha and the multiple English stakes winner Moneycanbuymelove, a Pivotal mare who placed third in the 2009 Nassau (G1).
Quotes from Japan Racing Association
Winning trainer Hidetaka Otonashi: “Mikki Rocket was in great shape after a good fourth in the Tenno Sho Spring and in training towards this race, so I was secretly thinking that maybe it was time that he deserved to be a G1 winner – I am relieved and happy.
“He has overcome his bad habit of missing his break which gives him a better chance in the race, and his position in the race was up to my rider to decide as he knows the horse well. He does have a tendency to lean to the inside so maybe that was the reason Wada let him hug the rails and nicely covered early in the race. I just prayed that he’d make it to the finish as Werther came strongly from behind.
“Now that he’s a legitimate member of the G1 ranks, his fall program, I think, will probably start with the Kyoto Daishoten with an aim on the Japan Cup.
Winning rider Ryuji Wada: “I was determined to choose a nice, firm route as the turf dried off after the rainy weather and we were lucky to take hold of a nice position from a smooth break today. The race was running at a solid pace but we were planning to go for a long spurt from early stretch so I kept him reserved, not too close but at a striking distance, during the trip. I wasn’t aware of Werther coming from behind me but I was awed by my horse’s ability to maintain his speed all the way to the wire.
Jockey Hugh Bowman on runner-up Werther: “Although we couldn’t win, I couldn’t be happier with the horse’s performance. At the top of the straight, I thought we had him covered, had a beautiful running transit. He enjoyed the genuine speed here in Japan and, to be honest, if he didn’t have the setback earlier in the year and had the time to prepare for this from the start, he would have won. I think that just having the one race over a mile into a Japanese 2,200-meter race, where it’s really a testing race –although it suits this horse’s style of racing – was why his condition gave out. But full credit to John (Moore) and the stable for getting him to come here and do so well at this level.”
Werther’s trainer John Moore: “With a better draw, I reckon we could have won. He lost a lot of weight but he was all heart. He knows where the winning post is and considering he was racing with the weight loss, he still showed a lot of internal fortitude to hit that line. Hugh said that at the corner when he hit that straight, he thought he was going to win but the winner just kept grinding to the line. But from a Hong Kong point of view, I think we’ve shown how good our best stayer is.”