Japanese superhorse T.M. Opera O gave his many fans some anxious moments, but the 1-2 favorite ultimately prevailed in Sunday's $4.4 million Japan Cup (Jpn-I), winning by a neck over another Japanese runner, Meisho Doto, who just lasted for second by a nose over Godolphin's hard-charging Fantastic Light. European-based Ela Athena finished fast to be 1 3/4 lengths farther back in fourth for American Gary Tanaka. John's Call, the 9-year-old gelding who carried the hopes of Americans Douglas Joyce and trainer Thomas Voss, sat just off a slow pace, battled briefly for the lead at the head of the stretch, but weakened to finish ninth. A second American runner, Edmund Gann's Timboroa, was a non-threatening 11th. The 1 1/2-mile race was run over firm turf and the final time was 2:26.1. With the win, T.M. Opera O became the richest horse in racing history.
The winner, a 4-year-old son of Opera House out of the Blushing Groom mare Once Wed, was winning for the 11th time in 18 career starts, and the Japan Cup was his seventh consecutive victory this year. T.M. Opera O is owned by Masatsugu Takezono and trained by Ichizo Iwamoto. He was ridden to victory by the relatively inexperienced 23-year-old Ryuji Wada. Takezono said after the win that he has no thoughts of testing T.M. Opera O in international competition outside of Japan. His next start likely will come in the season-ending Arima Kinen, a race in which he finished third last year behind Grass Wonder and 1999 Japan Cup winner Special Week. He plans to keep T.M. Opera O in training next year.
Stay Gold broke from the outside 16 post and set a leisurely pace, going the opening quarter-mile in :25.1, the half in :50.5, and six furlongs in 1:15.4. Jean-Luc Samyn had John's Call in a good spot just off the pace, ahead of Meisho Doto, with eventual winner T.M. Opera O behind him. Fantastic Light was positioned to the outside near the back of the pack, followed by Timboroa, who broke well but was shuffled back going into the first turn and had just two horses beat.
The pace quickened considerably, but Stay Gold held his advantage into the stretch after a mile split of 1:39.1 and 10 furlongs in 2:02.4. But Wada had T.M. Opera O on the move, and he picked off the front-runners one-by-one, surging to the front in the final furlong. Both Fantastic Light and Ela Athena closed well. Frankie Dettori, aboard Fantastic Light for Godolphin, said the slow pace worked against his chances. "As usual he ran a great race," Dettori said of Fantastic Light, who has made two trips to North America from his European base, and now is expected to head to Hong Kong for the international races on Dec. 17. "The effort of the team to keep him at that level was fantastic."
With his winner's share of approximately $2.4 million, T.M. Opera O became the richest horse in Japanese racing with 1,216,477,000 yen (more than $11 million in converted earnings). That exceeds the North American earnings record held by Cigar of $9,999,815 and the previous Japanese record of 1,092,623,000 yen won by Special Week.
Attendance was down dramatically in what has been a dismal year for the Japan Racing Association. A crowd of 108,058 turned out, 30% below last year's count of 155,972. The low turnout was blamed mainly on the reconstruction of the Tokyo Race Course grandstand that is in the first of three phases that will take several years. Wagering on the 11-race program, including on-track, off-track, telephone and computer betting, was approximately $350 million, down 10% from the 1999 Japan Cup day program.