February 3, 2023

Vela Azul bursts between foes to land Japan Cup

Vela Azul wins his Grade 1 debut in the Japan Cup (Photo by Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com)

Carrot Farm’s Vela Azul completed his transformation from ordinary dirt horse to turf star in Sunday’s Japan Cup (G1) at Tokyo. Making his first attempt at the top level, the 7-2 shot burst between foes in the final yards under an inspired Ryan Moore ride. Vela Azul was scoring not only a personal career high, but also became the first Grade 1 winner for both sire Eishin Flash and trainer Kunihiko Watanabe.

The 42nd Japan Cup shaped up as an open-looking affair on paper, with several logical players but no obvious standout. Shahryar garnered 2.40-1 favoritism as the established class of the locals, followed by up-and-coming sophomore Danon Beluga at 3.20-1.

Vela Azul ranked as the third choice thanks to his comprehensive victory in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2), his first graded tilt, and only his fifth turf start after plying his trade in obscurity on dirt. At the opposite end of the career spectrum, high-class veterans Weltreisende (8.50-1) and Daring Tact (12-1) were aiming to recapture their former heights following subpar runs.

That overall race profile appeared to give the European raiding party perhaps its best opportunity to interrupt the Japanese dominance of this race since 2006. But a steady pace, and the resulting traffic snarls in a congested field, snuffed out the chances of the Onesto and Grand Glory.

Vela Azul had a checkered passage himself. But Moore found a seam, and the black steed’s acceleration, as instantaneous as it was brave, did the rest.

Breaking from post 6, Vela Azul was reserved slightly worse than midpack. Up front, Unicorn Lion led through leisurely fractions of :24, :48.80, 1:13.30, and 1:37.8 on the good-to-firm course. Then the pace lifted as they swung for home, and the scrimmaging began.

The stalking Heart’s Histoire took over from Unicorn Lion briefly, only to be overwhelmed by those mustering from further back. Danon Beluga made his bid, with Shahryar rapidly advancing wider out. Weltreisende, who had been well placed in striking range, got a coveted gap toward the inside and stormed to the fore.

Vela Azul was still stymied until inside the final furlong, when Moore dove for the emerging daylight between Weltreisende and Danon Beluga. Shahryar was surging too, and in those frenetic yards, a tiring Danon Beluga was checked. Vela Azul then found Shahryar his new companion on the outside as both accosted Weltreisende.

Quickening on the proverbial dime, Vela Azul outfinished Shahryar by three-quarters of a length in a final time of 2:23.7 for about 1 1/2 miles. Weltreisende was another neck back.

“I was very lucky to ride a talented horse,” Moore said. “The pace was very steady for the Japan Cup. The horse never had much room, but when he did, he quickened up very well so he was very impressive today.

“I had a good horse that got me out front and we had a nice spot – it wasn’t too far off the pace and following a good horse, the horse in front was having to wait and I was having to wait (too), and when he found a bit of room he quickened up very well. I suppose for today being towards the inside wasn’t a disadvantage.”

Watanabe, himself a retired jockey-turned-trainer, wasn’t concerned about the lack of pace for Vela Azul.

“The pace was rather slow, but my horse has a good late charge, and I trusted him to make a good run,” Watanabe said. “He was in good condition coming into this race, but he exceeded our expectation.”

Daring Tact posted the joint-fastest final three furlongs (:33.7), tying Vela Azul and Shahryar, but had to settle for fourth after getting free too late. Danon Beluga wound up fifth, followed necks apart by the troubled French shippers Grand Glory and Onesto.

Grand Glory was stuck too far behind in the stretch, but rallied well once finally clear to snatch sixth. With better luck, she would at least have replicated her fifth from last year, and possibly improved upon it. Now the Group 1 queen will retire to her broodmare career.

Onesto, trapped on the inside for much of the way, finished with interest after finally being able to alter course. Next came Karate; German hope Tunnes, Torquator Tasso’s half-brother, who refused to load for a while, lagged near the back, but closed energetically; Uberleben; Heart’s Histoire; Shadow Diva; Trust Kenshin; T O Royal; Simca Mille, who stalked the pace but gave way to fare worst of the Europeans; Unicorn Lion; Boccherini; and the ever-trailing Ridge Man.

Vela Azul was earning the Japan Cup trophy that had eluded sire Eishin Flash, who was unplaced in all four of his appearances in this race (2010-13). Vela Azul is out of the Kurofune mare Vela Blanca, a two-time winner on dirt. Yet it wasn’t so much her influence, as physical reasons, to start him out on that surface.

“The reason for racing him on dirt early in his career was because he had leg issues (fractures) as a young colt,” Watanabe said, “and in order to race him with less risk, he was raced on dirt. However, I did think he had an aptitude to race well on turf and it was only a matter of timing as to when to shift to turf racing.”

Watanabe discerned that the time was right this spring. After Vela Azul had spent his entire sophomore and four-year-old campaigns on dirt, he made the switch at Hanshin Mar. 26 and promptly won. He placed third in his next pair, but prevailed over this course and distance June 11.

Resuming in the Oct. 10 Kyoto Daishoten, Vela Azul passed his graded test with flying colors. He proved himself up to Grade 1 standard in the Japan Cup to extend his winning streak to three. His career scorecard stands at 22-6-4-5, but the salient stat is his 6-4-0-2 turf mark.

Thus Vela Azul has more upside than usual for a horse of his age.

“He is five years old, but he gets better and better and still has room for improvement,” Watanabe noted.

Bred by Northern Farm, Vela Azul is related to a few other major turf performers. His dam is a half-sister to Japanese classic-winning champions Tall Poppy and Aventura as well as multiple stakes scorer Fusaichi Ho O. Vela Azul’s fourth dam is dual French classic heroine Madelia.