Last seen finishing second to champion Modern Games in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) on turf, Shirl’s Speight makes a bold attempt on the Tokyo dirt in Sunday’s February S. (G1), a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). The Charles Fipke homebred will clash with a couple of veterans from the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, Lemon Pop and Dry Stout, as well as classy sprinter Red le Zele in the contest over a metric mile.
The Japan Road connection extends to the undercard, with the Hyacinth S. serving as the third scoring race of the series. Six Triple Crown nominees are involved in the 14-horse field.
More Japan coverage: Alastair Bull has wagers for the February and Hyacinth at TwinSpires.com
February S. (G1) – Race 11 (1:40 a.m. ET)
Shirl’s Speight scored his signature win in last year’s Maker’s Mark Mile (G1), and as a sophomore in 2020, he rolled in the Marine (G3) on Woodbine’s all-weather. But can the Roger Attfield trainee win a major race on dirt?
By the remarkably versatile sire Speightstown and out of 2011 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) upsetter Perfect Shirl, Shirl’s Speight has tried dirt only twice. His disappointing 2021 comeback at Gulfstream Park didn’t reveal much, since he was subsequently sidelined. His more recent dirt experiment was better, a third to Mind Control and Hot Rod Charlie in the June 18 Salvator Mile (G3) at Monmouth Park. Although not disgraced, he was beaten 6 1/2 lengths, and Shirl’s Speight will need to raise his game here.
Attfield has been circumspect about whether Shirl’s Speight can do himself justice on this surface, according to his comments at japanracing.jp.
“I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about that because he’s only run twice on the dirt and they hadn’t been that great a race,” the dual Hall of Famer said Thursday. “I was a little concerned when my assistant told me how deep the dirt was out here. When he broke from the gate the other day, he ran a few furlongs and he seemed to handle it very well. I just have my fingers crossed.
“I’ve worked him quite a few times on the dirt track at the training center that I always go to in Florida (Payson Park), and that’s a reasonably deep dirt track, and he worked exceptionally well over it,” Attfield added. “He’s a very versatile horse but watching videos of him here and watching him this morning, he looks like he’s handling the track very well and if he can run to his true ability, he will be very competitive—but it is unknown to me.”
Shirl’s Speight picks up international ace Joao Moreira, but post 2 isn’t what Attfield wanted.
“I’m not really happy with that, but it is what it is,” his trainer said Friday. “A wider draw would have been more preferrable, but we just have to cope with it—the jockey will. I haven’t studied the other horses in depth, but basically if he can handle the going, which I think he can, he will be very competitive. Basically, it’s up to the jockey, and I have a very experienced jockey who has ridden here many times.”
On Saturday, Attfield reiterated his satisfaction with how Shirl’s Speight is getting over the track.
“The horse is very, very good, he trained nicely, and I’m very happy with him. He’s usually a grass horse but he seems to be handling the dirt very well—we wouldn’t want any more rain though.”
The home team is experiencing a changing of the guard. Two-time February champion Cafe Pharoah is abdicating his throne, in favor of next Saturday’s Saudi Cup (G1), which is also the target for such top dirt campaigners as Jun Light Bolt and Crown Pride. Thus the February offers an opportunity for a Grade 1 laurel in their absence.
The one to beat is arguably Godolphin’s Lemon Pop, who comes off a new career high in the Jan. 29 Negishi (G3). That key local prep included several February entrants – Kenshinko (sixth), Jasper Prince (ninth), Admire Lupus (11th), Sekifu (13th),T M South Dan (14th as the defending champion), and Helios (15th).
Lemon Pop is at last on his way to fulfilling the promise from his juvenile days, when he captured the course-and-distance Cattleya S. on the 2020 Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. Sidelined for more than a year, he regained his form with a four-race winning skein in 2022, all at about seven furlongs here. Lemon Pop missed by a nose in his graded debut in the Nov. 12 Musashino (G3), but his last-out Negishi victory established him as a prime threat.
Three of his re-opposing rivals are eligible to fare better on Sunday. T M South Dan, runner-up in last year’s stakes-record February, gets Christophe Lemaire. Helios was just denied by Cafe Pharoah in the Oct. 10 Mile Championship Nambu Hai. Sekifu, second in last year’s Saudi Derby (G3), was third in the Jan. 7 Subaru S. at Chukyo.
Another premier contender, Dry Stout, went down by only a neck in the Subaru in his latest. Like Lemon Pop, he was an unbeaten juvenile who ended up missing a lot of time at three, and now seeks compensation as an older horse. Dry Stout had likewise starred on the Japan Road, landing the 2021 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun with Sekifu back in fourth.
Red le Zele was last seen finishing fourth as the defending champion in the Nov. 3 JBC Sprint. For the past two years, he has used the February as a springboard to Dubai World Cup night. Fourth in 2021 and sixth in 2022, Red le Zele moved forward each time to place second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1). It’s to be determined whether another Mideast venture will follow this year.
Two are cutting back in trip from the about 1 1/4-mile Tokyo Daisoten (G1), third-placer Meisho Hario and sixth Shonan Nadeshiko. While Meisho Hario’s biggest victory also came at that trip in last summer’s Teio Sho, he won at this course and distance earlier in his career. The mare Shonan Nadeshiko was a four-time stakes winner at NAR tracks last season, including the Kashiwa Kinen over Soliste Thunder and T M South Dan.
Soliste Thunder, fourth in last year’s February as well as in the Godolphin Mile (G2), exits a seventh to Cafe Pharoah and Helios in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai. Other contenders include Auvergne, eighth in the Tokai TV Hai Tokai (G2) that he had won back in 2021, and the final Japanese Grade 1 mount for Yuichi Fukunaga; Keiai Turquoise, the Subaru fourth who has won since; and Speedy Kick, heroine of three straight on the NAR circuit.
Hyacinth S. – Race 9 (12:25 a.m. ET)
The Hyacinth is worth points on a 30-12-9-6-3 scale to the top five finishers, ensuring a total overhaul of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Omatsuri Otoko and Perriere were second and third, respectively, in the Dec. 14 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun on the Japan Road at Kawasaki. But Triple Crown-nominated Perriere has claims to turn the tables back at Tokyo. Goraiko, trained by Koichi Shintani of Crown Pride fame, captured the Nov. 3 JBC Nisai Yushun, and fellow nominee Eclogite is on the upswing after an allowance score. More details can be found on the Hyacinth preview at kentuckyderby.com.