March 21, 2023

Cafe Pharoah locks up Japan Road to Kentucky Derby in Unicorn Stakes

Cafe Pharoah effectively clinched the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby in the Unicorn (Photo copyright Japan Racing Association)

A few hours after Tiz the Law cruised to a decisive victory in the Belmont S. (G1), cementing his status as favorite to win the Kentucky Derby (G1), a talented rival halfway across the world responded with a powerful performance of his own.

While it’s too soon to say how Cafe Pharoah might stack up against the best 3-year-olds in North America, he’s certainly proven his superiority over Japan’s finest sophomore dirt performers. On Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse, the son of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah kept his unbeaten record intact with a resounding victory in the 1,600-meter Unicorn (G3).

The triumph marked Cafe Pharoah’s second success in a Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race, following a late-charging victory in the Feb. 23 Hyacinth at Tokyo. With 70 qualification points to his credit, Cafe Pharoah – a Triple Crown nominee – has built an insurmountable lead in the standings.

There was little drama surrounding Cafe Pharoah’s Unicorn triumph, his third win from as many starts. Breaking from the outside post in a field of 16, Cafe Pharoah was theoretically in danger of getting hung wide around the sweeping turn at Tokyo. But with hot jockey Damian Lane in the saddle, Cafe Pharoah flashed speed from the outset and managed to clear most of his rivals during the run down the backstretch, settling two paths off the fence while tracking Lecce Baroque through fast splits of :23.00, :46.10, and 1:10.50.

By the time the field entered the final 400 meters, Cafe Pharoah was poised to strike and merely waiting for Lane’s cue. When asked to accelerate, the response was instantaneous, and Cafe Pharoah hit another gear to sprint the final quarter in :24.40 and dominate by five eye-catching lengths.

Dieu du Vin, winner of the Cattleya Sho on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby last fall, unleashed a powerful rally from the back of the pack to finish second, though he was no match for the runaway winner. Kenshiko and Thunder Blitz—neither nominated to the Triple Crown—rounded out the top four, while Samba Saudi Derby winner Full Flat weakened to finish sixth after tracking the early pace.

By every metric, Cafe Pharoah turned in a powerful performance. Produced by the More Than Ready mare Mary’s Follies, Cafe Pharoah stopped the timer in 1:34.90, eclipsing the stakes record of 1:35.00 while missing the track record by just 1.10 seconds. Even better, he sprinted the final 600 meters in a snappy :36.40, a strong fraction for a dirt route in Japan.

Owner Koichi Nishikawa and trainer Noriyuki Hori have time to make a Kentucky Derby decision. There is one more race on the Japan Road, the July 8 Japan Dirt Derby at Oi, and the invitation would come after the scoring is complete.

Only time will tell if Cafe Pharoah makes a trip to Churchill Downs to vie for victory on the first Saturday in September. But should he give the Derby a go, he’ll rank as perhaps the most formidable foreign challenger in many years.