The hometown horses may hold a major edge in this year's Japan Cup (Jpn-I) Nov. 24. But that doesn't keep some world travelers from trying their luck in the world-class race worth nearly $6 million.
Japan has won the past seven renewals of the Tokyo Racecourse fixture, which was started in 1981 as a way to attract international interest and help improve the Japanese racing product.
After four wins over the years by American connections, the United States will go unrepresented for the second year in a row. But three international stars will try to break Japan's grip over its most prestigious race.
All three—Joshua Tree, Dunaden, and Simenon—are out of quarantine and got a feel for the track on a sunny, cool morning Nov. 21. The three had the whole track to themselves since the Japanese horses are based at off-track training centers and won't arrive for the race until the weekend.
Three-time Pattison Canadian International (Can-IT) winner Joshua Tree is entering "at the very top of his game," said assistant trainer Andrew Stringer, pinch-hitting for trainer Edward Dunlop at a press conference following the gallop. Joshua Tree made a striking appearance on the sprawling Tokyo layout.
"You don't win a bad Japan Cup," said Stringer in response to a question about this year's field. "It is one of the top-class races in the world. It's very, very hard for the foreign-born horses to win in Japan. Years ago, it was slightly easier but right now, Japanese racing is very, very hard. One or two of us come over every year and try to get something out of it."
A little something would be just fine with Joshua Tree's crew, he said. The 6-year-old Irish-bred son of Montjeu is the only horse in the expected 18-horse field eligible for a bonus purse for winning a designated race. The incentive is offered by the Japanese Racing Association as a result of Joshua Tree's smashing Canadian International win Oct. 27.
"We came here with great hope of a big bonus," Stringer said. "If we can get at least third place, that's our goal."
A victory in the Japan Cup would mean an extra $888,000 to Joshua Tree's connections, while second would be worth $355,000, and third $222,000. That's in addition to a purse of $2,777,000 to the winner, $1,111,000 for second, and $700,000 for third.
Joshua Tree, owned by Khalid Nabooda and Kamel Albahou, had lost six in a row since a win in the International in 2012 before breaking through again at Woodbine in his most recent start. He was coming off a fading 13th-place finish after opening a big early lead in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) Oct. 6. Joshua Tree ran 10th in an exceptionally strong Japan Cup in 2010 as a 3-year-old.
"He's the real deal at the moment," Stringer said. "He's a lot better than he was at 3 or 4. He looks fantastic, or as Americans would say, he looks awesome."
The seven-time winner from 31 races with earnings of more than $3.8 million is to be ridden by Johnny Murtagh.
Jockey Ryan Moore, who was aboard the bay in the Canadian International, has jumped ship to ride likely favorite Gentildonna, the defending Japan Cup champion.
"Ryan is one of the best jockeys in the world on one of the fastest horses in the world," said Stringer, who also gives Japanese stars Gold Ship and Eishin Flash top chances.
"All three are rated 10 pounds superior to Joshua Tree," Stringer said. "We have to have one of those three race poorly."
Globe-trotting Dunaden, winner of the 2011 Melbourne Cup (Aus-I) by a nose, would be the first horse to complete the Melbourne/Japan Cup double if he were to prevail Sunday. The 7-year-old French-bred son of Nicobar also won the Hong Kong Vase (HK-I) in 2011. He is trained by Mikel Delzangles for Pearl Bloodstock.
The classy stayer has won 10 of 42 races, including the 2012 Caulfied Cup (Aus-I), while banking nearly $8 million. But he is coming off an 11th-place finish in the 2013 edition of the Melbourne Cup three weeks ago.
In an answer to a question about Dunaden's running style, traveling lad Mathieu Brasme noted through an interpreter, "Dunaden raises his head as he runs, particularly in a new place. He likes to look around at the race course. He tends to get a little excited, maybe a little too much.
"We have a good situation" with a horse that likes to travel, Brasme added. "More countries, more opportunities. That's the strength of this horse. We have taken this horse every place."
Brasme blamed Dunaden's poor showing in the most recent Melbourne Cup to carrying an additional five kilograms (58.5, or nearly 129 pounds). "Here, it's equal weight so we're not worried," he said.
The Irish-bred 6-year-old Simenon ran a bang-up fourth in the 2013 Melbourne Cup after rallying from mid-pack over hard ground to miss third by a head. The son of Marju only returned to flat racing this spring after transferring to the care of champion Irish steeplechase trainer Willie Mullins two years ago.
Wicklow Bloodstock's consistent stayer will need firm ground once again to make his best showing, said Emmet Mullins, nephew of the trainer. He's likely to get it as the fine weather in Tokyo is expected to last through the weekend.
"We've done a lot of traveling this past year—Australia and now here," the younger Mullins said. "We're very happy with how the horse handled it. He's improved all the time.
"He's now 100% ready after his gallop this morning. He has a bit of tactical speed. I don't see a fast race being any problem. We were very happy leaving Austrailia with him. He took a day or two to bounce back (in Tokyo) but he's very improved."
Mullins said the bay proved his ability on the flats, adding, "Now he's up against the very best. Maybe the steeplechase brought more out of him, but right now he's at his best."