Ed Dunlop, the trainer of British star Ouija Board, got some good news when he talked to the champion mare's regular exercise rider earlier this week while she was preparing for Sunday's Japan Cup (Jpn-I).
"He told me Ouija Board felt even better than she did before the Breeders' Cup," said Dunlop. Ouija Board, owned by Lord Derby, turned in a dominating performance at Churchill Downs in this year's Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), moving to the lead with a powerful rally at the top of the stretch, and drawing off under Frankie Dettori to defeat Film Maker by 2 ¼ lengths. She won the same race two years earlier at Lone Star Park and ran second to Intercontinental last year.
Ouija Board ran fifth in last year's Japan Cup under Kieran Fallon, then traveled to Hong Kong, where she captured the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase (HK-I) at Sha Tin. Dettori was aboard the 2005 Japan Cup winner, Alkaased, who nosed out Heart's Cry for the victory. Heart's Cry and Deep Impact, last year's Japanese Horse of the Year, will be the top two betting favorites in this year's Japan Cup, a 2,400-meter (1 ½ mile) invitational being run for the 26th time.
Heart's Cry, winner over Ouija Board in the Dubai Sheema Classic (UAE-I) in March, has not been postward since finishing third in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes (Eng-I) on July 29. His career record shows five wins from 18 starts Deep Impact, disqualified for a drug positive after finishing third in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Lucien Barriere (Fr-I), has won 10 of 12 career starts. Both are sons of the late Sunday Silence, who sired six of the 11 runners in the Japan Cup field. The 1989 Horse of the Year's final crop of runners are 3-year-olds of 2006.
Dunlop hopes Ouija Board will be farther off the pace than she was in last year's Japan Cup, when she tracked the front-running Tap Dance City, moved to the lead at the top of the stretch, then had nothing left at the end.
"She tends to be a little lazy at this stage of her life," Dunlop said of the 5-year-old daughter of Cape Cross. "I think we'll see a different kind of race this year, with a smaller field (only 11 runners) and less pace. She idles when she gets to the front. Ideally, we will not be hitting the front so early. We'll hold on to her and hope for the best. She's the best filly or mare in the world, but she'll be going against two of the best colts in the world (Heart's Cry and Deep Impact."
Dunlop pointed out that Ouija Board traveled back to England after the 2005 Breeders' Cup and before shipping to Japan. This year, she stayed in the U.S. after the Breeders' Cup and Dunlop believes his mare is in top physical condition.
"She's at the perfect racing weight that she's maintained all year, and seems to be thriving," Dunlop said. "I hope you understand the word 'freak' when I apply it to her. She just defies us all with her fantastic attitude and temperament."
Dettori gave Ouija Board a light exercise on the Tokyo Race Course turf Thursday morning and said she handled the turf very well. "She's a true professional," Dettori said. "She doesn't waste energy and has the ability to take everything in stride on every occasion. And she has a tremendous turn of foot." The Italian jockey said he hopes rain-forecast for Friday, clears out before the weekend, allowing the course to dry and remain firm for Sunday's Japan Cup. "It's a big concern for us," the rider said of the prospects for a soft turf.
Ouija Board is scheduled to race again in Hong Kong following the Japan Cup before being retired and bred to Lane's End stallion Kingmambo.
The only other non-Japanese runner in the Japan Cup, the Niarchos family's Freedonia, jogged on the Tokyo dirt course one day after clearing quarantine. Alan Cooper, racing manager for the Niarchos family, thinks the 4-year-old daughter of Selkirk is a legitimate contender in the race, even though she is being quoted by English bookmakers as a 66-1 longshot.
Freedonia, trained by John Hammond, won the Prix de Pomone (Fr-I) at Deauville in September and ran second to English Channel in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (gr. IT) at Belmont Park in October.
Cooper said the slow pace in the Hirsch (:51.37 half mile) hurt the filly's chances. "She rated lower on the International Classifications than many of the horses in the Japan Cup, but she's a late-maturing filly and will benefit from a faster pace than she got in New York."
Hammond was scheduled to arrive Thursday night. Thierry Gillet, who will ride Freedonia, just returned to riding after being kicked in the left arm and having a screw put in to repair the injury following a training accident one month ago. "He was given a green light to ride a week ago and just rode a winner for Mr. Hammond the other day," said Cooper.
Post positions for both the Japan Cup and Saturday's Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) were drawn Thursday. The Japan Cup Dirt, in its seventh running, attracted no horses from outside of Japan for the first time.
$4.6 million, Japan Cup (2,400 meters, turf).
PP, Horse, Weight (kilograms), Jockey
1. Heart's Cry (Jpn), 57 kg, Christophe Lemaire
2. Swift Current (Jpn), 57, Norihiro Yokoyama
3. Ouija Board (GB), 55, Lanfranco Dettori
4. Yukino Sun Royal (Jpn), 57, Katsuharu Tanaka
5. Tosen Shana O (Jpn), 55, Hiroki Goto
6. Deep Impact (Jpn), 57, Yutaka Take
7. Dream Passport (Jpn), 55, Yasunari Iwata
8. Fusaichi Pandora (Jpn), 53, Yuichi Fukunaga
9. Freedonia (GB), 55, Thierry Gillet
10. Cormo Bulk (Jpn), 57, Tuyuki Igarashi
11. Meisho Samson (Jpn), 55, Mamoru Ishibashi