Godolphin’s Lemon Pop confirmed himself as a rising dirt star in Sunday’s February (G1) at Tokyo, while Grade 1 turfiste Shirl’s Speight couldn’t lift on the surface and wound up ninth.
The metric mile feature serves as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), but the 1 1/4-mile distance is believed to be well beyond Lemon Pop’s scope. In the near term, he could accept an engagement on Dubai World Cup night at Meydan, with the about six-furlong Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) reportedly the prize under consideration.
A course-and-distance winner of the 2020 Cattleya S. on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, Lemon Pop missed nearly his entire sophomore season. The son of Lemon Drop Kid resumed his progress as a four-year-old in 2022, compiling a four-race winning streak at about seven furlongs. His skein was halted over a metric mile in the Nov. 12 Musashino (G3), but he was just mugged in that graded debut.
Lemon Pop gained revenge next time in the Jan. 29 Negishi (G3) back down a furlong in trip. There was a school of thought that perhaps the mile just stretches him a bit. Bettors stuck with him in the February, sending him off as the 6-5 favorite.
Hitherto regular rider Keita Tosaki, however, did not. He opted to retain his partnership with Dry Stout, the 2-1 second choice. The beneficiary of that decision was Ryusei Sakai, who picked up the mount on Lemon Pop and delivered a pitch-perfect ride.
Lemon Pop broke on top, but Sakai gathered him in hand to stalk. The mare Shonan Nadeshiko showed the way, and her pace attendants Helios and Keiai Turquoise ranged up to challenge turning for home.
Although Lemon Pop was breezing up to them wider out, Sakai waited as long as he could to set him down. The response was instantaneous, as the chestnut asserted. The move was impeccably timed, for Red le Zele came flying from near the tail of the field. Lemon Pop held him safe by 1 1/2 lengths in a final time of 1:35.6.
Red le Zele, runner-up in the past two editions of the Golden Shaheen, was turning in his best effort yet in this race. He’d been fourth in the 2021 February and sixth a year ago. If connections press on to Dubai again, it could be significant that he arrives on the back of such a strong prep.
Meisho Hario flashed home late for an amazing third, after nearly unseating his rider at the start. Jockey Suguru Hamanaka somehow retained his balance in the saddle, and his irons, despite Meisho Hario’s nosedive that could well have sent him toppling over. Last in the 16-horse field until the stretch, he passed all but Lemon Pop and Red le Zele.
Dry Stout didn’t have the clearest of runs in fourth, but was a good 2 1/2 lengths behind Meisho Hario. Longshot Admire Lupus excelled himself in fifth. The NAR-based filly Speed Kick checked in sixth, followed by Helios; Soliste Thunder; Shirl’s Speight, who was initially in a good spot from post 2, soon got shuffled back, and failed to factor thereafter; Kenshinko; Sekifu; Auvergne; Keiai Turquoise; T M South Dan; Shonan Nadeshiko; and Jasper Prince.
Shirl’s Speight’s trainer, Roger Attfield, reiterated that turf is his game.
“From what the jockey (Joao Moreira) was telling me, he wasn’t enjoying the kickback that much, but I think he ran an OK race,” the dual Hall of Famer said. “I just think he’s a superior turf horse, but we gave it a try.”
“It’s a strong race,” Moreira said, “and Shirl’s Speight wasn’t capable of handling the track over here, which is extremely deeper than what he gets in North America. In the straight, even if he did get held up a little, he wasn’t really taking into the race indicating that he wasn’t going to be competitive.”
Sakai expressed his gratitude for getting the call-up aboard Lemon Pop.
“I’m grateful to have been given the chance to ride such a strong and favored horse and am happy we won,” Sakai said. “I rode him in workouts and found out he was laid-back and very easy to ride. Today we sat near the pace, just as planned. He responded well and pulled away strongly, all the way to the wire.”
The first Grade 1 winner for trainer Hiroyasu Tanaka, Lemon Pop boasts a mark of 11-8-3-0. The five-year-old was bred in Kentucky by Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Tait and sold for $70,000 as a Keeneland November weanling. His dam, the Giant’s Causeway mare Unreachable, is out of Grade 3 winner Harpia, who is a full sister to shuttle stallion extraordinaire Danehill.
Harry Sweeney, head of Godolphin’s operation in Japan, commented on how much the February laurel means.
“We are both thrilled and relieved,” Sweeney told godolphin.com. “Thrilled that Lemon Pop has won a G1 race at his first attempt and won in good style. After his first two races, we were convinced of his ability and believed him to be a G1 horse, but some slight soundness issues intervened which kept him off the track for a year. Kudos to our veterinary and training teams for giving him all the time he needed.
“We are relieved that he now has a JRA G1 on his curriculum vitae which will be very important for his next career whenever he finishes racing….
“We needed to lean significantly on Lemon Pop’s trainer, Tanaka san, to get him to run over a mile in this race so hence another reason for us to be relieved.”
Sweeney added that they would be in no rush to make a decision regarding Lemon Pop’s status for Dubai.
Two races earlier on the card, Perriere justified 11-10 favoritism in the Hyacinth S. to shoot to the top of the 2023 Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. The final race in the series is the Mar. 25 Fukuryu S. at Nakayama.