Japanese superstar Orfevre suffered an agonizing defeat at the hands of the
unheralded French filly Solemia in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last
out, but aims to turn the tables back on his own home turf in Sunday's Grade 1
Japan Cup at Tokyo.
In some respects, Orfevre's career has recalled that of Japan's last larger-than-life champion, Deep Impact. Orfevre's trainer, Yasutoshi Ikee, is the son of Deep Impact's trainer, Yasuo Ikee. Both colts swept their nation's Triple Crown at three, and set out to make a mark on the world stage at four, but ultimately failed to give Japan its long-awaited breakthrough in the Arc. Deep Impact atoned by coming right back to take the Japan Cup after his Longchamp reverse, and now Orfevre looks to follow suit.
But for all of his natural talent, Orfevre hasn't been as straightforward as Deep Impact, who was usually dominant and as utterly reliable as they come. Orfevre lost more races at the beginning of his career (four) than Deep Impact did in his whole life (two), then got his act together with a superb six-race winning streak last year.
Reappearing in the Grade 2 Hanshin Daishoten on March 18, Orfevre threw it all away in one of the most bizarre spectacles seen on a racecourse. The reigning Horse of the Year dragged Kenichi Ikezoe to the lead going down the backstretch for the second time in the 1 7/8-mile marathon, and suddenly veered to the far outside. As Ikezoe started to pull him up, he was for all intents and purposes out of the race. Just as abruptly, Orfevre saw the rest of the field going ahead without him, and he went into overdrive to catch up. Amazingly, he was in contention down the stretch, and nearly pulled off an unbelievable recovery, but fell a half-length short.
Orfevre added blinkers next time out in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho Spring over two miles, without success, at Kyoto. Although there was no repeat of his antics, he never got involved from off the crawling pace and ended up an uncharacteristic 11th. The mind-boggling winner was 159-1 shot Beat Black, who capitalized on a farcically-run race.
Just when Orfevre's season appeared to be in a tailspin, the flamboyant
chestnut got back to his best in the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin. Racing
without the blinkers, he sliced smartly between horses and brushed aside an
international Group 1 winner in Rulership.
Orfevre was now once more on course for his main objective, a trip to France for the Arc. After a fluent score in his course-and-distance prep, the Group 2 Prix Foy on September 16, he ranked as the horse to beat. Orfevre looked a certain Arc winner when he powered to the front in midstretch, only to lug in toward the rail and flounder late on the heavy ground.
But the mudlark Solemia, one of those whom Orfevre had already blown by, kept on. Clawing back the yards, the Wertheimer et Frere homebred collared Orfevre in the final strides to prevail by a neck.
Solemia was winning her first Group 1. The Carlos Laffon-Parias filly had good form this season, as evidenced by her victory over Shareta and Siyouma in the Group 2 Prix Corrida and her third to Shareta in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille at Longchamp September 16.
Yet Solemia has more questions to answer at Tokyo. No Arc winner has ever won the Japan Cup, a record of futility extended by Danedream's sixth-place effort here a year ago. Moreover, Solemia prospered in the conditions at her familiar Longchamp, which won't likely be replicated in the Japan Cup. One thing, however, will be constant, for Olivier Peslier will be back aboard.
Orfevre gets the home court advantage on Sunday, and that should prove decisive in the rematch. The son of Stay Gold swept the first two legs of the Japanese Triple Crown, the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas) and Grade 1 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), in his last visits to Tokyo in 2011.
Ikezoe, who did not ride Orfevre in his two French races, reunites with the idiosyncratic colt on Sunday. Just as he did in the Arc, Orfevre has drawn on the far outside -- in this case, post 17.
Japan's bench is very deep, and several others are well qualified to keep the trophy at home for the seventh straight year.
Christophe Soumillon, who guided Orfevre in the Foy and Arc, picks up the mount on his stablemate Tosen Jordan. The son of 2001 Japan Cup star Jungle Pocket enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2011, highlighted by a record-setting victory in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho Autumn and a near-miss second to Buena Vista in the Japan Cup.
Tosen Jordan started 2012 with a couple of solid efforts in defeat, including a late-running second to Beat Black in that oddly-run Tenno Sho Spring. But his campaign has since been hampered by hoof troubles, which kept him out of action for six months. Plainly short on fitness when resuming for a title defense in the October 28 Tenno Sho Autumn, Tosen Jordan never got involved in 13th. Ikee has forthrightly said that he might still need another race, but that he's showing signs of improvement. Tosen Jordan is drawn just to the inside of Orfevre in post 16.
Japan's Filly Triple Crown heroine Gentildonna aims to make history as the
first three-year-old filly to land the Japan Cup. The daughter of Deep Impact
cut it close in the first and last fillies' classics, the Grade 1 Oka Sho
(Japanese One Thousand Guineas) and Grade 1 Shuka Sho last time out, but she was
thoroughly dominant in the middle jewel, the Grade 1 Yushun Humba (Japanese
Oaks) in May.
Significantly, the Japanese Oaks is held over this same 1 1/2-mile trip at Tokyo, and Gentildonna posted by far her most convincing performance. Aside from storming home by five lengths, the Sei Ishizaka trainee smashed the stakes record by speeding in 2:23.6, also a slightly faster time than the 2:23.8 recorded by Deep Brillante in the Japanese Derby.
Gentildonna sometimes has an air of nonchalance as she goes about her business, but she has a winning attitude. She brings a four-race winning streak into the Japan Cup, and has captured six of eight lifetime starts. Her only losses are a runner-up effort in her debut as a juvenile, and a fourth in the Grade 3 Tulip Sho back in March, following a fever that had cost her training time. Regular rider Yasunari Iwata has the return call aboard Gentildonna, who gets in with a light weight of 117 pounds.
Eishin Flash, the 2010 Japanese Derby winner, comes off a brilliant victory in the Tenno Sho Autumn over the course. Although he endured a two-year losing streak prior to his October 28 success, the son of King's Best had some high-profile placings to his credit along the way, including a close second to Orfevre in last December's Grade 1 Arima Kinen. Christophe Lemaire has been named to ride.
The three-year-old Fenomeno was a fine runner-up to Eishin Flash in the Tenno Sho Autumn, where he ran a winning race on the outside, and might not have even glimpsed his older rival charging up the fence. Fenomeno had suffered a similarly tough defeat in this spring's Japanese Derby, just missing on the head-bob to the now-retired Deep Brillante.
A son of Stay Gold like Orfevre, Fenomeno has looked a cut above in his two
Grade 2 victories in classic trials, the Aoba Sho and St. Lite Kinen. The
handsome dark bay is bound to earn a top-level win sooner or later.
Rulership comes off a bang-up third in the Tenno Sho Autumn. A bit lackadaisical from the gate in his return from a four-month holiday, he rallied furiously from a hopeless position, and his sharp trainer Katsuhiko Sumii predicts a big showing on Sunday.
As a son of Japanese champion King Kamehameha and Horse of the Year Air Groove, Rulership has started to live up to his pedigree. He proved himself on the international stage in April, when slamming his foes in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin, and subsequently chased Orfevre home in the Takarazuka Kinen. Australian rider Craig Williams, who guided him to that second-place effort, will renew acquaintance in the Japan Cup.
Dark Shadow, fourth to Eishin Flash, Fenomeno and Rulership in the Tenno Sho Autumn, likewise closed from well back. The lightly-raced five-year-old has yet to break through at the Grade 1 level, but he was beaten only a half-length by Tosen Jordan in the 2011 Tenno Sho Autumn in record time. Dark Shadow has also been a fairly consistent type, and his 2012 highlights include a runner-up effort to Trailblazer in the Grade 2 Kyoto Kinen in February. The crafty Mirco Demuro, no stranger to upsetting major Japanese races, takes over at the helm.
The eight-year-old Jaguar Mail has raced with honor in the past two Japan
Cups, finishing fourth in 2010 and third last year. Spelled following his
rallying fourth to Beat Black and Tosen Jordan in the Tenno Sho Spring, the
Jungle Pocket horse warmed up with a closing seventh in the Tenno Sho Autumn.
William Buick will team up with the Grade 1 veteran, who might be better
remembered for his strong efforts in defeat in three straight runnings of the
Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2008-10).
Beat Black has not duplicated his Tenno Sho Spring performance in two subsequent efforts, including a one-paced fourth in the Grade 2 Copa Republica Argentina at Tokyo November 4. Although the stayer has his work cut out for him in the Japan Cup, he will save ground from post 1.
Rose Kingdom was awarded the 2010 Japan Cup title in the stewards' room, thanks to the controversial disqualification of Buena Vista. He has won only once of 12 subsequent starts, and brings a year-long losing skid into this renewal. Only ninth in last year's Japan Cup, Rose Kingdom has shown little this season to suggest that he can recover his former glory. The son of King Kamehameha exits a sixth in the Grade 2 Kyoto Daishoten in his return from summer break.
Meisho Kampaku was a fairly exposed five-year-old who had seemingly found his appropriate level, but the step up to 1 1/2 miles in the Kyoto Daishoten proved to be a revelation. Under confident handling, the son of Grass Wonder exploded from well off the pace to defeat the grand old campaigner Oken Bruce Lee. The Japan Cup represents a serious class hike, though, for the Grade 1 debutant.
Oken Bruce Lee will be making his fifth consecutive appearance in the Japan Cup. Runner-up by a whisker to Vodka in the 2009 edition, the blaze-faced chestnut has failed to crack the top three in his other tries, and is not quite what he used to be. The seven-year-old has tended to save his best for Kyoto, and remains winless from eight appearances at Tokyo.
Aside from Solemia, Europe has four other chances to end Japanese dominance in this race. Three are coming out of the Group 1 Melbourne Cup -- third-placer Jakkalberry, fifth Mount Athos and eighth Red Cadeaux. All were compromised by the soft pace scenario in the two-mile handicap.
Mount Athos is trained by the last European to take the Japan Cup, Luca
Cumani, whose Alkaased set a record time of 2:22.1 in 2005. A progressive
handicapper in the Cumani mold, Mount Athos was a perfect three-for-three in
England this year. The son of Montjeu crushed the up-and-coming stayer High Jinx
in the John Smith's Silver Cup at York, then easily garnered his Group debut in
the Group 3 Geoffrey Freer at Newbury in August. Mount Athos was among the
leading contenders in the November 6 Melbourne Cup, and his troubled fifth was
creditable enough in the circumstances. Ryan Moore retains the mount on the
well-bred gelding, who shortens up to 1 1/2 miles for the first time since the
summer of 2011.
Red Cadeaux, who famously missed by a pixel in the 2011 Melbourne Cup, never got close this time after a slow start from a poor post. The Ed Dunlop charge is probably better over longer trips, as suggested by his victory in the Group 2 Yorkshire Cup at 1 3/4 miles in May. But Red Cadeaux has placed in his last four attempts at this distance -- a second to St Nicholas Abbey in the Group 1 Coronation Cup and thirds in the Hong Kong Vase, Group 2 Hardwicke and Group 2 Princess of Wales's Stakes. The gelded son of Cadeaux Genereux is also fresh, having been unraced for four months ahead of his tilt at Melbourne, and picks up the services of Gerald Mosse.
Italian Group 1 veteran Jakkalberry, third to Cirrus des Aigles and St Nicholas Abbey in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night, has been busier over the second half of the season. The Marco Botti trainee successfully invaded Arlington Park for the August 18 American St Leger and later shipped to Australia, where he prepped with a 13th in the Caulfield Cup. Jakkalberry fared best of the European-based horses in the Melbourne Cup, but like Red Cadeaux, could prefer longer events these days. Jockey Colm O'Donoghue maintains their partnership.
Sri Putra, winner of the Group 2 York Stakes two starts back, was last seen finishing sixth behind Frankel in the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York on August 22. Mostly campaigned around 1 1/4 miles, the Roger Varian charge requires firmish turf and a fast pace to set up his late kick, and he could get both at Tokyo. When conditions are right, he has hit the board behind the likes of Rewilding, Twice Over and So You Think. Sri Putra has finished second in his only two starts at 1 1/2 miles, in the 2010 International Bosphorus Cup and Group 3 Glorious Stakes.