Japan’s marquee race for speedsters in the autumn, the Sprinters S. (G1) at Nakayama, serves as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), but the award is usually moot with the winner more interested in pursuing the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) in December. Sunday’s renewal, however, may turn out to have a Breeders’ Cup angle, after Godolphin’s Fine Needle flew late to get up as the 9-5 favorite.
A homebred from Darley Japan, Fine Needle has been in career form as a five-year-old. The son of Admire Moon and the multiple Group 3-winning Mark of Esteem mare Needlecraft is a perfect four-for-four at home this campaign. After a victorious prep in the January 28 Silk Road (G3) at Kyoto, he captured Japan’s biggest sprint prize of the spring, the March 25 Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1) at Chukyo. His was a ground-breaking first Japanese Group 1 score by a locally-trained representative of the Godolphin blue.
Fine Needle tried a foreign venture in the April 29 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1) at Sha Tin, and although caught for speed by the Hong Kong blitzers, he kept on for a useful fourth. Back from his summer vacation, Fine Needle successfully defended his title in the September 9 Centaur (G2) at Hanshin.
That set him up for an attempt at a Group 1 sprint double last accomplished by the dazzling Lord Kanaloa, who took both the Takamatsunomiya Kinen and Sprinters in 2013. Fine Needle may not have his warp speed, but he has an effective closing kick that carried him here.
Settled in midpack by jockey Yuga Kawada, Fine Needle had a deficit to overcome on the good course that was being lashed by a typhoon. Once in a Moon showed the way before being overtaken by Love Kampf, who had all but clinched the race when Fine Needle arrived on the premises. The Yoshitada Takahashi trainee forced his neck in front in a final time of 1:08.3 for about six furlongs.
Rhein Spirit finished third, Once in a Moon was swamped late in sixth, and two-time defending champion Red Falx did not factor in 10th. Unfortunately, Hong Kong shipper Lucky Bubbles was pulled up with a career-ending suspensory injury to his left front.
Fine Needle, who was improving from a 12th in last year’s Sprinters, has compiled a record of 27-10-2-2.
“He wasn’t as sharp in the first half of the race,” Kawada recapped, “and we had to race further out than we’d hoped, but despite the unideal trip, he really made up for it with his legs at the straight and we just managed to clinch our victory at the wire. He sure validated his win in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen with this JRA sprint Grade 1 double and two other graded race victories which undoubtedly places him as the top sprinter in Japan.”
“I am relieved to have been able to come up with the best results as the race favorite,” Takahashi said. “I knew by the look of Fine Needle’s eyes at the saddling area that he had switched into racing mode. He was positioned exactly where I had imagined and I was a little concerned when the jockey was urging the horse on at the third corner, but the horse got into gear and then geared up again once entering the stretch so from there I was just hoping with all my heart that he would reach the leader in time.
“Fine Needle is such a professional, he seems to know exactly what it takes and executes it at the right time. He was 12th in the Sprinters Stakes last year, and coming off his break during the winter, he came back to the stables a different horse—so strong—and he’s shown that since his first time up in the Silk Road Stakes. We’ve used him over a mile before but the sprint is what he’s best at, so we’ll be sticking to 1,200 meters or 1,400 meters at the most.
“I’ll have to see how he pulls up from this race to determine his future starts including a choice to run in the Hong Kong Sprint, but if we do I hope to show the fans there how much stronger he’s become.”
That unfinished business in Hong Kong may make the December 9 International Races program at Sha Tin the more tempting option, but connections are also considering a trip to Churchill Downs for the Breeders’ Cup.
“The options are the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint or the Hong Kong Sprint,” said Harry Sweeney, Godolphin’s president in Japan. “We will see how Fine Needle comes out this race before making a decision.”