In a scene that has been played out on four continents over the past four years, Vodka, Japan’s reigning Horse of the Year, had most of the 98,811 the fans at Tokyo Race Course cheering wildly as she barely held on to win the Nov. 29 Japan Cup (Jpn-I). She ranks among other recent femme fatales Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Rags to Riches, Zarkava, Goldikova, and Makybe Diva.
Ridden for the first time by Christophe Lemaire, favored Vodka, who had finished fourth and third, respectively, in the last two runnings of the 2,400-meter Japan Cup (about 1 1/2 miles), finally found the winner’s circle, but only by a nose, defeating second choice Oken Bruce Lee by the narrowest of margins.
The 5-year-old Vodka raced forwardly about four or five lengths off the pace and launched her bid shortly after turning into the three-furlong straight. She charged to the front from between horses with 300 meters to run and quickly opened a clear lead. The huge crowd erupted when it became apparent Vodka was on her way to a comfortable victory. But Oken Bruce Lee, who had to go some 10-wide at the head of stretch after rallying rom third last in the 18-horse field, was closing even more powerfully for jockey Hiroyuki Uchida.
Oken Bruce Lee came flying down the center of the course, chopping into Vodka’s lead with every stride. Most thought he had gotten the nod, but, after several minutes to examine the photo, it was Vodka whose number went up, much to the delight of the crowd.
With her victory, Vodka, trained by Katsuhiko Sumii, has now won seven grade or grade I races. After two defeats this fall in the Mainichi Okan (Jpn-II) and the Tenno Sho (Autumn) (Jpn-I), Sumii made the call to put Lemaire in the irons, replacing the mare's longtime rider, Yutaka Take.
“Stretching her out has always been the issue with her,” he said. “The change in jockeys definitely had something to do with it, but Lemaire happened to be free and it was my decision.”
Another Japanese-trained filly, 3-year-old Red Desire, ran on well to finish third, beaten 1 1/2 lengths. British-trained Conduit, winner of back-to-back runnings of the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I), finished fourth, but was never a threat in the final race of his career. Conduit is set to stand stud at the Big Red Farm in Hokkaido next year.
Commenting on the close finish, Lemaire said, “At the post I thought we had won, but just after the post I wasn't so sure. Those last 100 meters were so long. I know she has a lot of fans and a lot of support; she is a fantastic horse and deserves to win this race. I am very happy for all of her fans. She has courage.”
It was reported that Vodka returned after the race bleeding from the nostrils. She was ruled out for the next month, meaning she will not run in the 2,500-meter Arima Kinen (Jpn-I) at Nakayama, the year’s grand finale. It could also mean that the Japan Cup was Vodka's final race.
The victory had Vodka's connections hanging in suspense.
“It's not good for your heart," owner Yuzo Tanimizu said. "I had complete faith in the horse, but I was nervous. Winning the Japan Cup means a lot to me, because we finished third last year and fourth the years before. We came back this year to pick up what we feel like we left behind. But I knew this year was different from the moment she set foot on the course. When the result finally came out, I was relieved."
Commenting on Vodka's future, he said: “I think we’re nearing the time where we have to make some kind of decision. I’ll talk to the people at the stable about it first because they know her better than anyone. It’s all up to the horse, but we just always try to take it one race at a time.”
As for Conduit, jockey Ryan Moore Moore said: “He broke poorly and he didn't respond as he usually does. He may have been tired, not having enough time from his last start.”
Vodka is 10-for-25 for her career. The victory, worth nearly $2.8 million, boosted her earnings to about $13 million.