Katharine F. Hunter

Japanese Mare on All-Time Earnings Quest

Victory in Dubai World Cup would increase earnings past $19 million.


Already the leading female by earnings in Thoroughbred racing history, Japan’s back-to-back Horse of the Year Vodka is training in Dubai with a mission to capture the coveted crown as the sport’s all-time leading money earner.

Aiming for the record $10-million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), Vodka would surpass longtime money king T.M.Opera O for the title if she wins the 2,000-meter contest over the new Tapeta track at Meydan Racecourse on March 27. While her connections are keenly aware of this fact, they are keeping discreetly quiet, other than to say they are optimistic she can once again defeat top male runners as she did in last year’s Japan Cup (Jpn-I) and in four other major races in a spectacular career that so far has unfolded only on the turf.

"Yes, it is a goal. We are all hoping," said Keita Tanaka, who is overseeing Vodka’s training in Dubai while representing her owner and breeder Yuzo Tanimizu, of the earnings record.

"Everything is going very well. She had her first gallop yesterday (Monday, Feb. 22), going five furlongs, after arriving in Dubai on February 11, and she handled the Tapeta very well," Tanaka said.

A 6-year-old mare by Tanino Gimlet, Vodka pushed her career bankroll to $13,147,826 by defeating Oken Bruce Lee by whiskers in a game performance while suffering some pulmonary bleeding in the Japan Cup on Nov. 29. Among those in her wake that day was two-time Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) winner Conduit, who finished well to be fourth.

With a $6-million prize awaiting the winner of the Dubai World Cup—an amount equal to what had been the highest total purse amount anywhere on the globe—Vodka could, with a victory, leave Meydan with earnings of $19,147,826.

T.M.Opera O, a son of Opera House who raced from 1998 to 2001, earned $16,200,337 and reigned as Japan’s Horse of the Year and champion older horse in 2000 as well as champion 3-year-old colt in 1999. His victories included the 2000 Japan Cup, which is Japan’s richest race, and the 1999 Satsuki Sho (Japanese Two Thousand Guineas, Jpn-I).

In comparison, Curlin  rules as North America’s leading earner with $10,501,800, with his wins including the 2008 Dubai World Cup and the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Two-time champion older mare Zenyatta, who won the Classic last year, is North America’s leading female earner with $5,474,580 and she will try to add to that amount in a 2010 campaign.

Tanaka said Vodka is scheduled to prep for the Dubai World Cup in the $300,000 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (UAE-II) over 2,000 meters on the March 4 "Super Thursday" program at Meydan. Christophe Lemaire, who rode the mare for the first time in her Japan Cup victory, is expected to be back in the irons.

Vodka’s connections, learning from prior experience with her in Dubai, have opted to make a few changes in her preparations this year. Rested after the Japan Cup, she resumed training in mid-January and had three workouts before she left Japan, more than she had under her girth before traveling to Dubai in previous years.

"She arrived (in Dubai) very nicely and she is getting fitter," Tanaka said, adding that in 2008, she was somewhat unsettled by the trip and in 2009 was perhaps too relaxed and not fit enough.

In both previous years, she ran very well on turf in Dubai, missing winning the $5-million Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) by 1 3/4 lengths in 2008 while fourth behind winner Jay Peg, who set a course record of 1:46.20 in the 1,777-meter race. In 2009, Vodka was very unlucky, getting shut off in traffic while seeming an apparent winner, in the Jebel Hatta (UAE-II), but then was uncharacteristically a non-threatening seventh in the Duty Free won by Gladiatorus.

Tanaka said it is clear that Vodka will face severe competition for the $10-million World Cup. However, he suggested that horses from around the world will have a better chance on the Tapeta track, as compared with the dirt surface that was used for the race at Nad al Sheba Racecourse and over which American-based and Godolphin runners excelled.

"I am very happy with the track so far. This is a very fair track," said Tanaka, adding that former trainer Michael Dickinson, who invented the surface and installed it at Meydan, advised him that Vodka seems to be a "very suitable horse for this track."

From her very first race, a winning effort at Kyoto Racecourse in October 2006, Vodka has proved superior. She earned championship laurels as Japan’s best juvenile filly and became the first filly in 64 years to win the Tokyo Yushun. She earned Horse of the Year honors in 2008 with victories in the Tenno Sho (Jpn-I) and Yasuda Kinen (Jpn-I) over males and won three group I events in 2009, including two over males, to seize the title again.

Trained by Katsuhiko Sumii, Vodka is out of the Rousillon mare Tanino Sister, an earner of $758,020 in four seasons of racing in Japan.