There are many questions going into Sunday's 21st running of the Japan Cup (Jpn-I), whose nearly $4-million purse makes it one of the world's richest races. But first and foremost on the minds of many American racing fans is whether or not the four-horse U.S. contingent can break a 10-year victory drought in the 2,400 meter turf race that night owls will be able to view on the ESPN News cable network between 1:15-1:25 a.m. EST early Sunday morning(10:15-10:25 p.m. PST Saturday night). (Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of Eastern time in the U.S.)
Four American-based horses -- Cagney, Timboroa, White Heart, and With Anticipation -- are set to take on Japan's defending champion in the race, T.M. Opera O, who was a perfect 8-for-8 in 2000, but has not been nearly as dominating during his 5-year-old season this year. Japanese fans are expected to make the chestnut son of Opera House a mild favorite in the race, but Yutaka Take-ridden Stay Gold will provide the reigning Japanese Horse of the Year a stern challenge.
Stay Gold, a pint-sized 7-year-old son of Sunday Silence, will be making his fourth consecutive run in the Japan Cup, but he has finished no better than sixth. However, this year, Stay Gold is in his best career form, having defeated Fantastic Light in Dubai's Sheema Classic (gr. II) on the Dubai World Cup program. He also finished first ahead of T.M. Opera O in an important Japan Cup prep race in October, though was disqualified for causing interference against a third runner.
Another strong Japanese contender will be Jungle Pocket, to be ridden by France's Olivier Peslier. Jungle Pocket is a Japanese-bred son of Tony Bin whose roaring finish in the stretch carried him to victory in the Tokyo Yushun (Jpn-I), also known as the Japan Derby. But only one 3-year-old has won the Japan Cup, that being El Condor Pasa in 1998.
Europe's best hope in the race is the 3-year-old Golan, who is making his final career start for trainer Michael Stoute before going off to stud at Coolmore. Golan won the Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) this spring, then finished second behind Galileo in the Epsom Derby (Eng-I). He won the Prix Niel (Fr-II) as a prep for the Prix de l'arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), but finished fourth in the Arc behind Sakhee on soft ground that the son of Spectrum did not like. The condition of the Tokyo race course turf will be very firm on Sunday. Jockey Kieren Fallon has been replaced on Golan by John Murtaugh.
The other European representative is Paolini, a German-trained horse who finished a close second to Mutamam in the Canadian International Stakes (Can-I) at Woodbine in late September in his most recent start. Paolini is a German-bred son of Lando, who won the Japan Cup in 1995.
The most recent American-trained horse to win the Japan Cup was Golden Pheasant, who won the 1991 renewal for trainer Charlie Whittingham and jockey Gary Stevens. Stevens will ride White Heart this year for trainer Neil Drysdale. White Heart, a 6-year-old gelding by Green Desert, was narrowly defeated by Senure in his most recent start, the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. IT) at Santa Anita on Sept. 30. White Heart was very sharp in his final serious prep for the Japan Cup on Thursday morning. The big question regarding White Heart is whether he can stay the distance of about 1 1/2 miles. He has never won beyond 10 furlongs.
Cagney, a Brazilian-bred colt by Roy, comes off an impressive victory at 1 1/2 miles in the Carleton F. Burke Handicap (gr. IIIT) at Santa Anita Oct. 28. The Richard Mandella runner was a fast-closing third in his prior start against White Heart and Senure in the Clement Hirsch. Though he was a group I winner in his native country, Cagney has yet to win against top competition outside of Brazil, and the Japan Cup will be by far his biggest challenge. Mike Smith will be aboard Cagney, who appears to have traveled well from the U.S. and has been eager in his training.
The final two American starters, With Anticipation and Timboroa, are expected to solve one of the Japan Cup's biggest mysteries of who will set the pace. None of the Japanese runners have shown early speed in their races, so it could become a cat-and-mouse game between Jerry Bailey, the rider of Robert Frankel-trained Timboroa, and Japan's Masayoshi Ebina, who was picked by trainer Jonathan Sheppard to ride With Anticipation.
With Anticipation's best races this year have found him on the lead, but Sheppard has said that he would prefer to see his white-coated son of Relaunch running from just off the pace. Frankel has publicly bemoaned the fact jockey David Flores took Timboroa far off last year's Japan Cup pace, when the son of Salse finished 11th after encountering traffic problems throughout. Timboroa's biggest win in 2001 came in the Turf Classic (gr. IT) at Belmont, when Edgar Prado nursed him on the lead through pedestrian fractions of :50.99 for a half-mile and 1:41.39 for a mile en route to 2:29.43 clocking for 1 1/2 miles. Jerry Bailey will ride Timboroa for the first time in the Japan Cup.
With Anticipation and Timboroa battled for the lead in their most recent start, the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT). Under Pat Day, With Anticipation led early, then faltered badly after a mile, eventually finishing 13 lengths behind Fantastic Light. Timboroa put With Anticipation away on the backstretch, then tried to steal the race on the front end. He was overtaken in the stretch but battled on gamely to hold third, beaten 6 1/2 lengths.
In addition to the coverage on ESPN News (which is being tape delayed by about 10 minutes), the Japan Cup is scheduled to be shown on ESPN2's "2-Day at the Races" on Sunday at 11 p.m. EST, and on the "Racehorse Digest" on ESPN2 on Nov. 28 at 2 p.m. EST.