When the Japan Racing Association inaugurated the Japan Cup in 1981, it created an opportunity for adventuresome international horsemen to run for extraordinary purse money with horses that were a cut or two below the very best in their native lands. America's Mairzy Doates led a one-two-three sweep for North America in the race's first running, with the next two renewals captured by American Half Iced and Europe's Stanerra. Though Japanese stars Katsuragi Ace and Symboli Rudolf won the Cup back-to-back in 1984 and '85, the race reverted to invaders from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres through 1991, giving the spoils to foreign runners in nine of the first 11 runnings. The licking taken by Japanese owners and breeders served notice that they had to improve the quality of their bloodstock if they fully expected to compete on the world stage. A bullish Japanese economy and strong yen in the late 1980s provided the fuel, while the mounting losses in the Japan Cup and booming purses of the JRA racing program gave Japan's owners and breeders the motivation to take drastic measures. As the American and European bloodstock markets languished in an economic slump, Japanese horsemen invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Western world's best bloodlines in hopes there would be a payoff down the road. That day has come. The 21st edition of the $4-million Japan Cup (Jpn-I) on Nov. 25, preceded on Nov. 24 by the second running of a companion international race, the $2-million Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I), were vehicles for Japan's dominance. Horses either bred in Japan or imported there prior to racing swept the first seven finish positions of the JC Dirt, and they similarly nailed down the first five spots in the Japan Cup on turf. It was the fourth consecutive home-team victory in the Japan Cup, and seventh in the last 10 years. Japanese-based runners have taken the first two runnings of the JC Dirt, a race that was expected to be dominated by American horses specializing on that surface. Most impressive was Kurofune, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred son of French Deputy who dazzled the 92,599 on hand with a spectacular winning move in the 2,100-meter (about 1 5/16 miles) JC Dirt, drawing off to win by seven lengths. Left far back in his wake were three American-based runners, including Chilean-bred Lido Palace, who came into the race off victories in the Whitney Handicap (gr. I) and Woodward Stakes (gr. I). Another 3-year-old, Japanese-bred Jungle Pocket, earned a hard-fought triumph over defending champion T.M. Opera O in the Japan Cup before 115,196 spectators. Once again, American horses had no say in the outcome, with White Heart's eighth-place finish the best of the four starters. Having a hand in both victories was Katsumi Yoshida, whose Northern Farm battles annually with brother Teruya Yoshida's Shadai Farm for leadership among Japan's ranks of leading owners and breeders. Northern Farm bred Jungle Pocket and sold the colt privately as a foal to owner Yomoji Saito. Katsumi Yoshida purchased Kurofune for $430,000 at the 2000 Fasig-Tipton Calder 2-year-olds in training sale and races him in partnership with Makoto Kaneko. For good measure, later that year, Yoshida bought French Deputy from Three Chimneys Farm and also purchased Kurofune's dam, Blue Avenue.
Taking FlightKurofune virtually sprouted wings midway through the JC Dirt. Taken back near the rear of the 16-horse field in the early stages by leading Japanese jockey Yutaka Take, the gray colt was eager to run down the backstretch, and it's doubtful Japanese sumo star Yokozuna Musashimaru would have had the strength to contain his energy. Longshot Americans Dig for It and Generous Rosi were setting the early fractions, with Jerry Bailey keeping second betting choice Lido Palace well-placed in fifth position on the outside. In a flash, however, the race was over. Kurofune's massive hindquarters and long, fluid stride powered him past the leading flight as they headed into the far turn, and from there it was only a matter of the winning margin and the final time. Both were impressive. No one was gaining on Kurofune as he reached the finish line under intermittent pressure from Take, stopping the clock in 2:05.9, shaving one and three-tenths seconds off the previous track record set in the inaugural JC Dirt last year. "I looked over and saw how easily that gray horse was running and knew it was hopeless," said Bailey. "I would have had to go into an all-out drive just to keep up with him, but it was far too early to do that." Kurofune drifted in after clearing the three American horses, causing a chain reaction that forced Mike Smith and Dig for It to brush the rail. Stewards spoke with the jockeys involved but made no change in the outcome. Last year's JC Dirt winner, Wing Arrow, closed from far back to get second, with Miracle Opera third. Lido Palace had no visible excuse, finishing eighth, beaten 11 3/4 lengths. Generous Rosi, second to Aptitude in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) in his most recent start, finished ninth for trainer Niall O'Callaghan, with Bruce Headley-trained Dig for It, a non-stakes winner in 38 previous starts, 11th. Trainer Bobby Frankel briefly considered running Lido Palace in the Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs when it appeared Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Tiznow might also go there. But when Tiznow was retired, Frankel reverted to his original plan of running Lido Palace in Japan. It appeared to be the horse's best chance of a major payday, since owners John and Jerome Amerman bypassed the Breeders' Cup because of the $800,000 supplementary nomination they would have had to pay to run in the Classic. Nagging in the back of Frankel's mind was a mild fever Lido Palace developed in late October, keeping him out of training for nearly a week. He put three workouts into Lido Palace before shipping, and one lethargic breeze into the colt at the quarantine center's training track in Japan. But the fever, combined with 11 weeks off since his last race, concerned Frankel that Lido Palace might not be 100%. "He's probably three or four lengths short of where I'd like him to be," Frankel said before the race, "but I'm hoping he's 10 lengths better than these horses." Frankel's underestimation of Kurofune, the 7-10 favorite, was based on the fact the colt had beaten weak competition in his only previous dirt race, the Musashino Stakes (Jpn-III) at about one mile. Kurofune set a track record in the race, going 1,600 meters in 1:33.3. Before that, Kurofune had won four races, including the NHK Mile Cup (Jpn-I) on turf. He was a well-beaten fifth behind Jungle Pocket in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby, Jpn-I). Yoshida and trainer Kunihide Matsuda, a former racing journalist in Japan, knew the colt was something special last year, even before he broke his maiden in late October. Yoshida entered into negotiations to buy French Deputy, whose first two crops had yielded just four stakes winners. In December, around the time of Kurofune's second career win, Yoshida was closing the deal to buy French Deputy for a price he said was $7 million. A month later, he bought Blue Avenue, a minor stakes winner sired by Classic Go Go. Continued...
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