The race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt, Sunday’s Champions Cup (G1) pits reigning titleholder Chrysoberyl against a younger aspirant to the throne – Cafe Pharoah, the top scorer on the 2020 Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Cafe Pharoah hopes to become the third straight 3-year-old to win here, following Le Vent Se Leve (2018) and Chrysoberyl (2019). The son of American Pharoah fueled Kentucky Derby hopes when winning the Hyacinth and Unicorn (G3) on the Japan Road, until suffering his first loss in the July 8 Japan Dirt Derby. His uncharacteristic retreat to seventh was chalked up to his failure to handle the deeper surface at Oi.
Chukyo suits Cafe Pharoah just fine, though, for he regained the winning thread in the Oct. 3 Sirius (G3) over elders at this track. He’ll face stiffer competition on Sunday, but he’s well drawn in post 7.
“He’s gradually improved in training,” trainer Noriyuki Hori said, “as previously he was a little reluctant and his breathing was a little heavy, but going into the race things are smoother with him and he’s relaxed. I think he’s now better than before. The shorter distance, and having Christophe Lemaire ride, are positives. Of course the opposition’s strong, and he’s still a young horse with limited experience, but I just wonder what he’s capable of doing here.”
Christophe Lemaire, who rode him for the first time in the Sirius, believes he’ll move forward off his prep.
“He wasn’t fully wound up when he won last time,” Lemaire said, “so there’s still room for him to improve more, and he has a chance in this Grade 1.”
If Cafe Pharoah can find a way to dethrone Chrysoberyl, he would add to the legacy of the late Paul Pompa, who bred the colt in Kentucky. Cafe Pharoah’s dam, Mary’s Follies, and half-sister Regal Glory (both Grade 2 winners) will be offered as part of the Pompa dispersal at Keeneland January.
Last year, Chrysoberyl played the role of exciting sophomore toppling the older dirt establishment. Extending his unbeaten sequence to six in the 2019 Champions Cup, the Hidetaka Otonashi trainee defeated the division’s elder statesman, Gold Dream, in a record time of 1:48.5 for about 1 1/8 miles at Chukyo.
Chrysoberyl was expected to transfer his high level of form to the world stage, but things didn’t go according to plan. His first international venture in the Feb. 29 Saudi Cup resulted in a non-threatening seventh after a slow start. The Dubai World Cup (G1) was to be his chance to make amends, until COVID called off the festivities.
Regrouping back at home, Chrysoberyl remained perfect in Japan by capturing the June 24 Teio Sho and the Nov. 3 JBC Classic at Oi. The defending champion remains the one to beat, although post 15 of 16 likely adds up to a wide trip with Yuga Kawada.
Gold Dream, hero of the 2017 Champions Cup and February (G1), placed second in both marquee events last year. Finishing one spot ahead of Chrysoberyl when sixth in the Saudi Cup, the 7-year-old was also ticketed for the Dubai World Cup. Gold Dream was most recently sixth in the Oct. 12 Mile Championship Nambu Hai, but trainer Osamu Hirata forecasts a stronger showing in this spot.
The consistent Chuwa Wizard has been unplaced only one time in 17 starts, and that was a troubled fourth in the 2019 Champions Cup. Another who had the Dubai World Cup in his datebook, Chuwa Wizard has chased Chrysoberyl again of late when third in the Teio Sho and JBC Classic.
Inti, third to Chrysoberyl here last year, exits a subpar ninth in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai where he threw a shoe. While the pace factor hasn’t won since capping a seven-race winning streak in the 2019 February Stakes, he sports a 3-2-0-1 mark at Chukyo.
Arctos just edged Mozu Ascot in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai in a record 1:32.7, going one better than his runner-up effort in that feature a year ago. The added distance is a question mark for Arctos, who’s yet to hit the board from three tries at about 9 furlongs. Trainer Toru Kurita and jockey Hironobu Tanabe are both upbeat about his effectiveness at the trip, and he does have course form as the winner of the 2019 Procyon (G3) at Chukyo.
Mozu Ascot turned a rare Grade 1, dual-surface double in the 2018 Yasuda Kinen (G1) on turf and the February earlier this season. The son of Frankel and Grade 2 vixen India, who missed by just a neck in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai, comes off a seventh behind Sunrise Nova in the Nov. 14 Musashino (G3). Mozu Ascot was toting top weight that day, and back at weight for age on Sunday, the Yoshito Yahagi charge could be a different proposition.
Sunrise Nova, a stablemate of Chrysoberyl’s, was regaining the Musashino crown he first won in 2018. Previously fourth as the defending champ in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai, Sunrise Nova rarely ventures up to this trip, and he was sixth here in the 2018 running. Also using the Musashino as a stepping stone are Air Spinel (third) and Time Flyer (fifth), both Grade 1-caliber on turf in the past before switching surfaces, as well as the Grade 3-placed Meisho Wazashi (sixth).
Air Almas brings a 4-for-6 record on dirt, including the Tokai (G2) in the slop back in January. The son of Majestic Warrior is entitled to step up from a fourth in his Miyako (G3) tightener. Miyako winner Clincher, a Grade 2 turf veteran who ran in the 2018 Arc, is yet another case study in finding a new lease of life on dirt.
Grade 3 winner Another Truth, third to Time Flyer in the Elm (G3) two back, picks up Mirco Demuro and takes the blinkers off for his JRA Grade 1 debut. Cafe Pharoah’s stablemate, Satono Titan, was 15th here last year and doesn’t enter in comparable form off a 13th in the Elm. The class-challenged Yoshio wheels back after being distanced in last Sunday’s Japan Cup (G1).
The Champions Cup goes off as the 11TH race at 1:30 a.m. (ET), late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, and you can watch and wager on TwinSpires.com.