March 23, 2019

Oval aces Hyacinth on Japan Road to Kentucky Derby; Inti takes Breeders’ Cup WAYI February

Oval Ace, with jockey Masayoshi Ebina aboard, wins the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan on February 17, 2019 (c) Horsephotos.com/Tomoya Moriuchi

Both features at Tokyo on Sunday had potential implications for the U.S. racing scene, with the February S. (G1) serving as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and the Hyacinth S. producing a new leader on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby (G1). Time will tell if streaking February winner Inti will take up his engagement at Santa Anita, or if unbeaten Hyacinth hero Oval Ace will pursue an interest in the Run for the Roses.

Oval Ace ranked as the 5-2 second choice in the Hyacinth, contested over the same metric mile as the February. Trained by Noboru Takagi for Tsuru Nishimori, he had aired in a course-and-distance newcomers’ event November 24 and beat Chukyo allowance company on December 15. But he was not among Japan’s raft of early nominations to the UAE Derby (G2), nor the four nominated to the Triple Crown. And the Henny Hughes colt, out of a Grass Wonder mare, was stepping up in class in his stakes debut.

Favorite Derma Louvre, a Triple Crown nominee with Dubai in the mix, set the standard. The near-misser in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun in the most recent Japan Road scoring race, he was previously the convincing winner of the Hyogo Junior Grand Prix at Sonoda. As it turned out, Derma Louvre didn’t pick up until the race was virtually over.

R Rosso set the pace, attended by Imeru, with Cattleya Sho winner (and Zen-Nippon fourth) Make Happy drafting in the leader’s slipstream on the fence. Oval Ace was initially held up in the clear by regular rider Masayoshi Ebina, until a hard-to-handle Miyake came alongside.

The shifting camera angles don’t give the full view, and if track announcer Murray Johnson hadn’t described Ebina’s looking around at Miyake, the development would have been tough to spot. Perhaps Miyake merely got a bit too close for comfort, but suffice to say that the winner had to shrug off an unexpected encounter.

By the time the field straightened for home, Weitblick burst from the pack to overhaul the stalling R Rosso and Imeru, and Make Happy had already given way. Oval Ace quickened to join Weitblick, who brought a similar two-for-two record, and the two unbeatens knuckled down to the wire. Although Oval Ace appeared to have his rival’s measure, the stubborn Weitblick forced him to find more. Oval Ace lifted again and finally put Weitblick away by three-quarters of a length in 1:38.6.

Derma Louvre made late headway for third, 2 1/2 lengths behind Weitblick. The only other Triple Crown nominee in the Hyacinth, Master Fencer, was in an unpromising position in last but rolled home in :36.1 – tying Oval Ace for the fastest final three furlongs – to finish fourth. Imeru, Nanyo Izayoi, R Rosso, Orthographe, Make Happy, and Miyake rounded out the order under the wire.

Now three-for-three, Oval Ace earned 30 points to jump to the top of the Japan Road leaderboard, overtaking Zen-Nippon winner Nova Lenda (20 points). Weitblick’s second in the Hyacinth was worth 12 points, the same total as Make Happy, who’s lost form since November. Derma Louvre, who pocketed 6 in third, now has 14 overall (including his 8 from the Zen-Nippon). Master Fencer got on the board with 3 points.

In the first two years of its existence, the Japan Road ended in the Hyacinth. This year it’s extended to a fourth leg, the March 31 Fukuryu S. at Nakayama, where the winner’s share of 40 points promises to be decisive. It remains to be seen which contenders will try to earn their Derby ticket via the Japan Road or pursue the main leaderboard in the March 30 UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup night.

Inti wins the February Stakes (c) Japan Racing Association

Speaking of Dubai, February winner Inti’s early speed would make him a fascinating player if connections opt to join the World Cup party. Shigeo Takeda’s homebred five-year-old has now won seven straight since dropping his debut, and the class climber enabled the legendary Yutaka Take to put on a front-running clinic here.

Dispatched as the 8-5 favorite off a smashing wire job in the January 20 Tokai TV Hai Tokai (G2) at Chukyo, his graded premiere, Inti outpaced Sunrise Soar as the February field sorted itself out. Then Take rationed out his speed to perfection. When he turned him loose in upper stretch, Inti left his nearest pursuers standing as he nicked an insurmountable advantage.

Gold Dream, the 2017 February winner who was just mugged in his title defense last year, was the only rival to bridge the gap. Although he closed fast, and Inti still looked a tad green, Gold Dream could not get past. Take nursed Inti across the line with a neck to spare in a final time of 1:35.6 – three seconds faster than Oval Ace in the Hyacinth.

While trainer Kenji Nonaka was earning his first career Grade 1, Take was celebrating his fifth February trophy alone, his 76th JRA Grade 1 title, and Inti’s upside.

“The horse broke well, and we were able to take the lead and set at an ideal pace,” Take said. “He was a bit too eager in the post parade and I was worried that he had used up his energy, but we secured a safe lead at the last turn and he showed amazing strength to the wire. He has so much potential, we have a lot to look forward to in his future starts.”

Yuranoto checked in a further four lengths adrift in third. Moanin, the 2016 winner, took fourth.

Copano Kicking garnered extra attention as the mount of Nanako Fujita, the JRA’s lone female jockey and accordingly the first to compete in a Grade 1. He finished well for fifth, but better early position would likely have put him in the frame.

“I am truly grateful to all who made it possible for myself to ride in this race,” Fujita said. “I have experienced this course numerous times before but today, everything looked totally different.”

Owner Sachiaki Kobayashi was delighted with Fujita’s performance aboard Copano Kicking.

“Nanako’s riding was perfect, just as we wanted,” he told Racing Post. “She rode him to use his ability and good turn of foot in the straight.”

The disappointments of the race were Omega Perfume, a non-threatening 10th, and defending champion Nonkono Yume, who blew the start, tried to improve prematurely, and wilted to 13th of 14.

Unraced at two, Inti made three starts as a sophomore in 2017, then headed to the sidelines for 11 months. The chestnut only resumed in July and made rapid progress since.

Inti has a thoroughly American pedigree, but no Sunday Silence. He’s by Came Home and out of the Northern Afleet mare Kitty, descended from the influential matron Northern Fable.