Espoir City appeared on his way to a second February Stakes (Jpn-I) win Feb. 17 at Tokyo, but Shadai Race Horse’s dirt specialist Grape Brandy wore him down in the final 100 meters to secure the win in Japan’s first top-level race of the season.
Ridden by Suguru Hamanaka for trainer Takayuki Yasuda, Grape Brandy won by three-quarters of a length and covered 1,600 meters (about one mile) on the dirt track in 1:35.01. The 6.70-to-1 third choice added a first group I win to his record. He is nominated to the $1 million Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) on the Dubai World Cup undercard March 30, but his long-range goal is the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-1) at the end of the year.
Espoir City, who captured the February Stakes in 2010, pressed pacesetter Taisei Legend throughout while Grape Brandy and Wonder Acute settled in mid-division. As Curren Black Hill, the 3-1 favorite despite making his dirt debut, faded out of contention on the home turn after racing prominently early, Grape Brandy seized the opportunity. He uncoiled his big powerful stride down Tokyo’s long stretch and closed ground on Espoir City in the final furlong, catching him in the final stages.
Wonder Acute, runner-up in the Japan Cup Dirt in December and bidding for a breakthrough group I win, rallied powerfully and nearly caught Espoir City, who held on for second by a neck. Curren Black Hill, winner of the NHK Mile (Jpn-I) on turf last spring, finished 15th in the 16-horse field.
Fifth in the 2012 Japan Cup Dirt, Grape Brandy came into the February Stakes off a convincing three-length win in the Tokai TV Hai Tokai (Jpn-II) Jan. 20 at Chukyo. With the February win, the 5-year-old by Manhattan Cafe improved his record to seven wins, including the 2011 Japan Dirt Derby, four seconds, and a third from 14 career starts.
Grape Brandy had his best season in 2011, posting three wins, including the Japan Dirt Derby at Ohi, and two seconds from six starts. But he broke his right foreleg after the Derby and was sidelined for nearly nine months.
Yasuda believes Grape Brandy is a blossoming star who could possibly be as good as former stablemate Transcend, who won three group I races on dirt—including the 2011 February Stakes before a second straight Japan Cup Dirt victory later in the season—and finished second in the 2011 Dubai World Cup. Transcend was retired at the end of 2012.
"It was sad to see him go," Yasuda said of Transcend prior to the February Stakes. "But the emergence of Grape Brandy has made up for it a little bit, because I think he's got the potential to match. We want to win the Japan Cup Dirt as well and be the number one dirt horse in Japan."
Bred by Shadai Farm, Grape Brandy is out of the winning Judge Angelucci mare Wine and Rose. He is by Japanese champion and classic winner Manhattan Cafe, Japan’s leading sire of 2009. The 15-year-old son of Sunday Silence stands at Shadai Stallion Station in Hokkaido.