February 27, 2024

Crown Pride challenges titleholder T O Keynes in Champions Cup

T O Keynes drew off in a dominant Champions Cup victory at Chukyo (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Sunday’s Champions Cup (G1) might lack foreign visitors, but the race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt still retains plenty of international interest. UAE Derby (G2) star Crown Pride, who wound up 13th in the Kentucky Derby (G1), takes on reigning champion T O Keynes at Chukyo. On the line is a berth in the 2023 Saudi Cup (G1).

The two just met in the Nov. 3 JBC Classic, with T O Keynes prevailing over Crown Pride. That was an about 1 1/4-mile test, and their rematch comes at about 1 1/8 miles on Sunday.

T O Keynes himself threw in a clunker abroad earlier in the year, laboring in an uncharacteristic eighth in the Feb. 26 Saudi Cup. Rebounding promptly in the May 21 Heian (G3) back at Chukyo, he was then fourth in his title defense in the June 29 Teio Sho. The Sinister Minister five-year-old was freshened for the fall and returned triumphant in the JBC Classic.

Trainer Daisuke Takayanagi admits to feeling “some pressure” as the defending champion, but is pleased that “things have gone smoothly leading up to the race” for T O Keynes.

Assistant Juntaro Taira sounded a hopeful note.

“He’s a lot quieter than before and he jumps a lot better in a race now, so even if the pace is quick he can adjust,” Taira said. “His condition is the same or better than last year, so I hope things go smoothly right up to race day.”

Crown Pride has turned the page on his Derby disappointment by placing in both of his ensuing starts versus elders. In the Sept. 28 Nippon TV Hai at Funabashi, he stalked in third, took over in the stretch, and just got run down late. That effort set him up for the JBC Classic. Crown Pride dictated the pace and repelled his nearest pursuers, only to be outstayed by T O Keynes.

“He adjusted well to his race two starts ago,” trainer Koichi Shintani said, “and last time he went off in front, so he’s experiencing different things, but as he matures, he’s showing a lot more power and there’s more to come from him. His experience in Dubai and America has also been good. I think he can do well this time too, and since returning from overseas he’s finished second, but I want to see him go one better.”

Crown Pride reunites with jockey Yuichi Fukunaga in post 10, while T O Keynes will break from post 12 for regular pilot Kohei Matsuyama.

Also exiting the JBC Classic is sixth-placer Auvergne. A Grade 2 winner at this track and trip in 2021, Auvergne was sixth in last year’s Champions Cup.

Gloria Mundi, who picks up ace Ryan Moore, reverts to dirt after flopping in the June 26 Takarazuka Kinen (G1) on turf. The Ryuji Okubo trainee had won his first four starts since switching to dirt, including two at this course and distance, before just missing to Omega Perfume in the Apr. 17 Antares (G3).

“He’s only lost once on dirt,” Okubo said, “so I think there’s still more to come from him, and even among this field, I’m interested to see what he can do. He’s a serious horse and Ryan Moore rides this time, so things should be good.”

Japan Dirt Derby winner Notturno was most recently a subpar seventh in the Nippon TV Hai. Trainer Hidetaka Otonashi commented that the colt is in much better shape at this point.

“He wasn’t in best condition for his last run, because when he returned from the summer in Hokkaido, he had lost weight,” Otonashi said. “He seems a lot sharper now and is ready to run again.”

A better indication of Notturno’s ability is furnished by the fourth-placer from the Japan Dirt Derby, Hapi, who has upheld his form. Trying elders in graded company, Hapi was second in the Sirius (G3) to Jun Light Bolt and fourth in the Miyako (G3) to 90-1 longshot Sunrise Hope.

Jun Light Bolt, a relative of turf stars Duramente and Rulership, was an underachiever on Japan’s premier surface. But moving to dirt over the summer revived his career, and he arrives with two straight stakes wins.

Red Galant hopes to follow that example by trying dirt here. Maxing out at the Grade 3 level on turf, and unplaced on the class hike, he was ninth in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2) to Vela Azul (the next-out Japan Cup [G1] winner) and 14th in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1).

Badenweiler, a half-brother to 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) shocker Marche Lorraine, was well beaten in both Grade 3 attempts including the Sirius. But he’s still a relatively unexposed four-year-old with a 6-for-11 mark. The winner of the Mercury Cup two back, Badenweiler gets Damian Lane and blinkers.

Multiple stakes-winning sprinter Shamal was third on the step up in trip for the Mile Championship Nambu Hai. He remains a question mark on a further stretch-out, but sire Smart Falcon offers hope.

“He’ll have an extra furlong to run this time,” trainer Takeshi Matsushita said, “but looking at his last race that should be fine. On his pedigree too, it shouldn’t be a problem, and he’s not one to pull. He’s good at getting a forward position in a race, like last time, so I’ll look forward to what he can do this time as well.”

Three are coming off losses in the Nov. 12 Musashino (G3) – fourth Smashing Hearts, sixth Tagano Beauty, and ninth Sunrise Nova, who’s gone winless for two years. Multiple Grade 3-placed veteran Sakura Allure was off the board in both the Sirius and Miyako, and Red Soldado has been unplaced in a pair of listed races.

You can watch and wager on the Champions Cup, the 11th race at Chukyo, on TwinSpires.com. Post time is 1:30 a.m. (ET) as late Saturday night becomes early Sunday morning.