Heavy favorite Espoir City, Japan's champion dirt horse last year, got his 2010 campaign off to a great start by easily winning the US$2.2 million February Stakes, the first grade I race of the season Feb. 21 at Tokyo Racecourse.
The Akio Adachi-trained Espoir City, by Gold Allure out of Eminent City, followed up last year's 3 1/2-length victory in the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) with another dominating performance.
The 5-year-old, ridden by Tetsuzo Sato, defeated Testa Matta by 2 1/2 lengths, with defending February champ Success Brocken finishing third in the 1,600-meter (about one-mile) event. The winning time, before a crowd listed at 61,304, was 1:34.9 over the dirt track. Fifteen horses competed.
Espoir City, who ran fourth in the February last year, could have a bigger test coming in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on March 27 should the connections, as expected, decide to take him to Meydan Racecourse.
“I think he’s getting stronger and stronger,” the 39-year-old Sato said during a post-race interview. “Last year, his start was poor because he couldn’t handle the patch of grass turf very well, so that’s something we’ve been working on all long as we got him ready for this race.
“He came out of his stall beautifully today and now that the race is over, I can say in hindsight that he was perfect, but before I was worried really about the grass at the start," Sato added. "But he got through it without a hitch today, and things like that speak about how much better of a horse he has become since last year.”
Espoir City found his best position in second early in the race as Japan turf sprint champion Laurel Guerreiro showed the way and second choice Success Brocken settled in a couple of spots behind them. Espoir City increased the tempo on the final turn and took the lead with 400 meters left.
Success Brocken tried to catch Espoir City in the straight but failed to make much impact on the leader, who built a commanding lead and coasted home comfortably in front.
Testa Matta, racing mid-pack, covered the final three furlongs in 35.5 seconds to gain the runner-up spot by 3 1/2 lengths over Success Brocken. Laurel Guerreiro faded to seventh.
Owned by Yushun Horse, Espoir City won his fourth grade I race and recorded his 10th victory overall in 18 starts.
Sato said it has always been his dream to take Espoir City to the world’s richest race.
“From the moment I rode him (in his first start), it’s the one race in the world I’ve always wanted to give him a shot at. And he’s finally reached a level where he’s going to have that opportunity.”