Published in the Oct. 27 Blood-Horse magazine
In a year with no consistent standout emerging to rally behind, the Kikuka Sho (St. Leger, Jpn-I) on Oct. 21 capped Japan's triple crown series with yet another surprise ending that left fans shaking their heads in dissatisfied disbelief. Sixth choice Manhattan Cafe (Sunday Silence -- Subtle Change, by Law Society) managed to pick off the classic jewel by a half-length from an even less likely contender, 11th choice Meiner Despot.
Heavyweights such as Tokyo Yushun (Derby, Jpn-I) winner Jungle Pocket and runner-up Dantsu Flame were left out of the money.
The post-race stands at Kyoto were abuzz with discontent as fans wondered out loud just what had taken the punch out of this year's "best." The blame was laid across the board on an agonizingly slow pace, wielded mercilessly by Meiner Despot. The Pentire colt had taken the lead as expected but dragged the 15-strong lineup over the first 1,000 meters in 1:03, the second 1,000 in 1:04.2.
Jungle Pocket, sorely agitated by the pace, held back midfield with Manhattan Cafe being guided carefully on a ground-saving, rail-hugging course to his inside by Masayoshi Ebina. Yutaka Take on Dantsu Flame settled in the far backseat.
And so the race dragged on, with no one wanting to make a move and sacrifice himself to "the big fellows behind."
Into the stretch, Manhattan Cafe closed unremarkably and with little challenge on the front-running Meiner Despot, catching and passing him less than two strides before the wire.
Irish-bred Air Eminem (Danehill -- Kissagram, by Alysheba), the first foreign-bred and the third choice of the 3-year-old classic, had held a steady fourth position throughout the race. He managed to wrap up a third-place finish three-quarters of a length behind Meiner Despot, with Jungle Pocket following 1 1/2 lengths back.
Second pick Dantsu Flame made the board in fifth place, exhibiting perhaps the best kick of the lot, but, according to Take, unable to handle the distance.
It was the first win of the Kikuka Sho for both jockey Ebina and the trainer, former jockey Futoshi Kojima.
"When I saw the start and him going into the turn on the first lap, I thought we had a chance of winning," Kojima claimed of Manhattan Cafe. "He was relaxed and the others weren't coping well," precisely what Kojima had hoped and planned. "I knew we had the best horse for such a pace over the distance," Kojima said.
Indeed, both Manhattan Cafe and Meiner Despot were not the only colts tested at longer than 2,400 meters, they each had wins at longer distances, albeit in low-level races.
Owned by Kiyoshi Nishikawa and bred at Hokkaido's Shadai Farm, Manhattan Cafe is now four for eight with accumulated prize money of ¥255.4 million. The Kikuka Sho winner's share was ¥112 million ($923,788).