Kazuhiro Sasaki’s Cheval Grand was third to Kitasan Black in last year’s Japan Cup (G1), but gained revenge by dethroning the champion in Sunday’s $5.6 million renewal at Tokyo. Better drawn on the rail this time than in post 17, and now teaming up with Winx’s rider Hugh Bowman, Cheval Grand earned his first Grade 1 laurel in his nation’s signature event.
The son of Heart’s Cry (who missed by a whisker here in record time in 2005) was sent off as the 12-1 fifth choice in the 17-horse field. Although winless so far in 2017, Cheval Grand had placed in three of four this campaign, including the Tenno Sho Spring (G1) – for the second straight year – to Kitasan Black, and he warmed up with a solid third in the October 9 Kyoto Daishoten (G2).
Kitasan Black, the even-money favorite to repeat, took the early initiative as he did a year ago, and Japan’s reigning Horse of the Year was traveling comfortably on the lead for most of the way. Cheval Grand raced several lengths back in fourth, scraping the paint until angling for room entering the stretch. At that point, Kitasan Black was still firmly in command, but once Cheval Grand knifed between foes, he outkicked his nemesis.
Rey de Oro, the 5-2 second choice, rallied wider out, but the current Japanese Derby (G1) winner still looked inexperienced as he tried to channel his energy in the stretch. Staying on purposefully, he collared Kitasan Black for runner-up honors without getting nearer than 1 1/4 lengths to the winner.
Cheval Grand, who zipped 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) in 2:23.70 on the firm course, clinched an honor for Bowman too. The Japan Cup, on top of his major wins aboard Winx as well as in Hong Kong, propelled the Australian reinsman to the 2017 World’s Best Jockey title.
Winning trainer Yasuo Tomomichi was responsible for both ends of the superfecta, with Makahiki checking in another four lengths back in fourth. The Aidan O’Brien-trained Idaho was just a neck away in fifth in the best showing by an international.
Rainbow Line finished sixth, replicating his performance from last year. Frankel’s daughter Soul Stirring, Yamakatsu Ace, Germany’s Guignol, the disappointing Satono Crown, Sciacchetra, Sounds of Earth, Australia’s Boom Time, Last Impact, Germany’s Iquitos, One and Only and Decipher rounded out the order of finish.
Cheval Grand’s prior graded victories came in the 2016 Hanshin Daishoten (G2) and Copa Republica Argentina (G2). The five-year-old became the third Grade 1 winner produced by the Machiavellian mare Halwa Sweet, a descendant of the great Glorious Song. Halwa Sweet is also responsible for two-time Victoria Mile (G1) heroine Verxina (runner-up to Gentildonna in all three legs of Japan’s Filly Triple Crown in 2012) and Vivlos, victorious in the 2016 Shuka Sho (G1) and the March 25 Dubai Turf (G1) over males on World Cup night.
Both Vivlos and Cheval Grand are campaigned by Sasaki, the former Seattle Mariners pitcher. Pedigree guru Sid Fernando tweeted that Sasaki recently celebrated another achievement – he was voted into Japan’s baseball Hall of Fame, and now has the Japan Cup winner.
Tomomichi expressed his delight at Cheval Grand’s top-level breakthrough.
“I am so happy to have finally won this prestigious Grade 1 title with Cheval Grand, who has always been so competitive in his past Grade 1 starts but was unable to win a Grade 1 title sooner,” his trainer said. “He was not exactly in his best form last year but still competitive.
“This year he came into his fall campaign in great condition and we had planned from the start with his owner that our target would be the Japan Cup and then the (December 25) Arima Kinen (G1) —another hard race (had he contested the Tenno Sho Autumn [G1] on October 29) would be too much.
“I discussed our tactics for the Japan Cup with Hugh Bowman who came to sit on Cheval Grand’s training on Wednesday and showed him his past performance over the video. Bowman said that the horse was in great condition and after we had drawn an inside draw on Thursday, the first thing he said to me was that we were in great luck with such a good draw. Kitasan Black led the way as predicted and Cheval Grand was able to secure an ideal position behind him in third or fourth and he really showed his strength at the stretch.
“He will head towards the Arima Kinen (and a rematch with Kitasan Black) as planned and this victory has given me great confidence towards another Grade 1 victory.”
Bowman likewise mentioned the plum draw in his post-race comments.
“I feel proud and very humbled to have had the opportunity to have a ride on Cheval Grand,” the winning rider said. “And with the horse in such great form, with the addition of a good draw, I was quietly confident in winning this race, while at the same time having great respect for Kitasan Black.
“It gives me a sense of pride to have even the chance to take part in such a recognized race and while I am well known for my partnership with Winx, it’s an honor to have won this race.
“When I rode him (Cheval Grand) on Wednesday he didn’t give me a strong impression as an exceptional horse, but the stable staff assured me that he was more comfortable on the turf, and I was confirmed of that when watching him race on the video.
“The good draw really played into the horse’s favor and allowed me to sit near the pace in third or fourth position without spending petrol and within two or three lengths of Kitasan Black in the lead. Everything went as I hoped it would. I felt that the pace might have been quicker but it didn’t concern me too much that it was a steady pace because I was able to sustain close to Kitasan Black. I was able to move from outside the German horse (Guignol) and make my way towards Kitasan Black.
“When Yutaka Take (on Kitasan Black) increased the speed at the 600 meters and again at the 400-meter mark, it gave me great confidence that I was able to judge exactly how fast we were going. And although at the 300 – I had so much respect for that horse (Kitasan Black) – I didn’t feel that I was going to beat it, but I knew that my horse still had power to give, and as we got to the 200-meter mark it was very clear to me that we were certainly going to beat Kitasan Black. But whether something was going to come from behind and beat me, I didn’t know at that stage, but we had a lot of confidence in this horse’s stamina, and his best performances have been over fast-run 2,400 meters or even two miles, so I knew that my horse was not going to stop, and the stable was confident, and they gave me confidence to be confident with the horse.”
Connections of the internationals commented on their respective runs, and Aidan O’Brien’s assistant Thomas Comerford had the most cause to be upbeat after Idaho’s fifth.
“It was probably one of his best ever runs, if not his best one,” Comerford said. “We’re very pleased with him – he ran one hell of a race from stall 14 and Aidan was delighted. The plan is to take him home now instead of taking him to Hong Kong because he ran so well here and look after him for next year.”
Guignol’s team could at least take satisfaction in his winning the head-to-head with his archrival, fellow German raider Iquitos (15th).
“I think we ran a good race,” jockey Filip Minarik said of the ninth-placer. “To break from a good draw, race in pace with Kitasan Black and in front of the winner Cheval Grand was like a dream. Our horse tired at the end, but we’re glad we finished faster than our rival Iquitos.”
“Our horse ran very well,” trainer Jean-Pierre Carvalho said of Guignol. “He could have finished better but ninth is OK. It’s the end of the season, he’s tired and things might have been better if we could have freshened him up a bit more.”
Boom Time’s 12th came in the midst of a checkered run.
“He was OK – could have finished a couple of positions closer if he had a bit more luck at the straight,” owner/trainer David Hayes said.
“I had no choice,” jockey Cory Parish said, “but let him run inside with a wall of horses on his outside, but he traveled well and he struggled a little up the rise. But whereas you would think he would just drop back from there, he just carried on, which was good.”
Iquitos didn’t have the luckiest passage himself.
“We traveled in the rear as usual but the pace was slow,” jockey Daniele Porcu said. “We wanted to move up but couldn’t find a good position and lost the chance and timing to make our bid.”
“He was in a bad spot after entering the stretch today,” trainer Hans-Jurgen Groschel said. “Daniele was unable to steer him to the outside for clear sailing. He was trapped inside, way behind and with no room.”