Belshazzar, whose once-promising career was curtailed by health issues, stormed to victory in the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) Dec. 1 at Hanshin, while U.S.-based Pants On Fire had trouble in the gate and finished last.
Christophe Lemaire settled Belshazzar well off the early pace before rallying his mount wide off the home turn of the tough right-handed course. The 5-year-old King Kamehameha horse caught favorite and third-place finisher Hokko Tarumae in the final sixteenth to lead and held off the closing rush of Wonder Acute for a neck victory.
Belshazzar was timed in 1:50.40 for 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) as the 8-1 third favorite. The race, which offered a purse of $3,015,000, was run for the final time at Hanshin. It will be revived next season as the Champions Cup and moved to Chukyo Racecourse, where it will be run at the same distance but with left-hand turns.
Pants On Fire, sent off at odds of 40-1, was the first foreign contender in the Japan Cup Dirt since Tizway in 2009, but in making his debut on the international stage, his run was compromised at the start. He raced second from last under Gary Stevens instead of his usual position toward the front, lost ground around the final turn, and faded out of contention.
"He reared in the gate to start and ended up nosebleeding, so I couldn't push him any further," Stevens said of the 2011 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) victor who has won three other U.S. graded stakes, including the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III) and Monmouth Cup Stakes (gr. II) this summer. "There's nothing to say but that we were unlucky."
Kelly Breen, who trains Pants On Fire for owners George and Lori Hall, said his runner did everything right heading into the race.
"He had a great workout," Breen said of Pants On Fire, who was looking to rebound from a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park. "He was relaxed and I think he took to the whole trip very good. The (length of) time on the track, the time being saddled, the whole procedure for racing compared to America...he just handled it like a professional. It just wasn't our day."
Hokko Tarumae finished third in last year's edition of the Japan Cup Dirt to Nihonpiro Ours, who posted a record time of 1:48.80, and could do no better than third again this year.
Nihonpiro Ours raced on the pace but weakened in the drive and checked in fifth in the 16-horse field.
Belshazzar entered off his first group victory in the Tokyo Chunichi Sports Hai Musashino Stakes (Jpn-III) Nov. 10 at Tokyo. He emerged as a potential dirt star this season after scoring three wins, a second, and a third from five starts on the surface following 14 months on the sidelines with a bone fracture. A classics contender at age 3, he was third to Japanese Triple Crown winner Orfevre in the 2011 Tokyo Yushun (Jpn-I, Japanese Derby). But after finishing unplaced in the Kikuka Sho (Jpn-I, Japanese St. Leger) he did not race again for more than five months due to a respiratory problem.
"When we entered the straight, the horse needed to balance a little bit, but when I used the whip, then the horse made another effort," Lemaire said after the victory. "I know the horse is strong and powerful with big strides, so I started to get very confident (about winning the race) at that moment."
Belshazzar is trained by Kunihide Matsuda, who won the Japan Cup Dirt in 2001 with Kurofune. The horse is owned by Shadai Race Horse, which bred him out of Japanese group III winner Maruka Candy, by Sunday Silence.
Stevens represented the United States in Japan's two-day "World Super Jockey Series" as part of the Japan Cup Dirt festivities, finishing 14th among the 15 riders with nine points. The competition was won by Great Britain's Richard Hughes, who edged Ireland's Patrick Smullen, 49-46. Andrasch Starke of Germany was third.