Falbrav (1) defeats Sarafan (background) in the Japan Cup, followed by Symboli Kris S (near) and Magneten.

Falbrav (1) defeats Sarafan (background) in the Japan Cup, followed by Symboli Kris S (near) and Magneten.

Bill Selwyn

Japan Cup Race Report: Dettori Double

Published in the Nov. 30 issue of The Blood-Horse
Frankie Dettori wasn't supposed to win the Nov. 23 Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) with 19-1 Eagle Cafe, a horse that hadn't captured a grade I race in over two years and was second on the list of alternates for an invitation to the $2-million event. Neither was Dettori expected to win the $4-million Japan Cup (Jpn-I) the following day. His mount, Falbrav, was coming off a lackluster performance in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe-Lucien Barriere (Fr-I) and fans dismissed him at identical odds of 19-1.

Yet there he was, showing off his flying dismount in the Nakayama racecourse winner's circle after each race, kissing the horses' owners and flinging a floral wreath into the frenzied crowd of Japanese racing fans who pressed against the rail, waving placards toward him and screaming for his autograph.

Both victories were special to Dettori, and not because of the lucrative paychecks that accompanied them. Eagle Cafe was conditioned by an old friend, Futoshi Kojima, a former jockey turned trainer who used to watch out for a younger Dettori when he came to Japan and, in his own words, "could be a naughty boy."

Dettori's Japan Cup triumph came aboard an Irish-bred but Italian-based runner, giving that nation its first win in this international race after five previous losses. "It's a dream come true for me and my country," said the 31-year-old native of Italy who left his homeland at 14. "Italy gave me the love of racing, but I carried it to other countries. I'm glad I could give it back in this way."

Dettori gave Eagle Cafe a brilliant ride in the Japan Cup Dirt, slicing through a narrow opening along the rail to win by one length over Regent Bluff, with favored Admire Don third. American runners Reba's Gold finished ninth and Abreeze was 12th in the nine-furlong race run in 1:52.20.

Falbrav's victory didn't come easily, and it was not without controversy. Again coming from just off the pace, Dettori rallied Falbrav to the lead in the final sixteenth of a mile, then angled in toward the rail and brushed several times with Sarafan, who was closing strongly toward his inside. It was a wild, head-bobbing finish, with Falbrav getting the nod by a nose after officials took a long look at the photo. Jockey Corey Nakatani called out to trainer Neil Drysdale to lodge an objection because of the incident at the finish. Drysdale pleaded his case, but the stewards said Nakatani was equally at fault for allowing Sarafan to drift out as Falbrav came in.

Japanese runners had taken the last four runnings of the Japan Cup, and fans bet the race as if another home team win was a sure thing. Symboli Kris S, the Kentucky-bred 3-year-old son of Kris S. who won the recent Tenno-sho (Jpn-I) over older horses, was the 2-1 betting choice, with Tenno-sho runner-up Narita Top Road second choice at 5-2 and 2001 Japan Cup winner Jungle Pocket third in the betting at 3-1. The lowest-priced foreign runner was Prix de l'Opera (Fr-I) winner Bright Sky at 16-1, with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes (Eng-I) winner Golan 18-1, and Eddie Read Handicap (gr. IT) winner Sarafan 34-1. A full field of 16 runners contested the 1 3/8-mile race, shortened from its usual 1 1/2 miles and moved to Nakayama while the main grandstand at Tokyo racecourse is being rebuilt.

With little pace in the starting lineup, veteran jockey Yukio Okabe tried to steal the race aboard Magnaten, an American-bred gelding by Danzig who was a stablemate of Symboli Kris S in the barn of leading Japanese trainer Kazuo Fujisawa. Magnaten cleared easily as the field made its way past the stands the first time on the right-handed course. Magnaten set fractions of :24.20 for the opening quarter-mile, :48.80 for the half, and 1:12.60 for six furlongs. Golan and Irresistible Jewel were the closest pursuers, with Dettori getting Falbrav just behind that pair and a couple of lengths ahead of Sarafan.

The field began to bunch up on the final bend, with the opening mile clocked in 1:36.20. Dettori swung Falbrav off the rail and toward the lead at the head of the stretch while Nakatani momentarily waited for racing room. Falbrav had all the momentum in his favor as Magnaten began to tire. Symboli Kris S, who had broken slowly under Olivier Peslier, rallied widest of all, and when Nakatani found a seam of daylight just off the rail, he asked Sarafan for a burst of speed, and the gelded son of Lear Fan responded.

By now, Falbrav had taken the lead but began to drift in from his position four or five paths off the rail. Sarafan closed in on Falbrav under Nakatani's right-handed urging, but Sarafan shifted out slightly and the two horses collided strides from the wire. Both riders urged their mounts on with right-handed whipping and they hit the wire together, stopping the clock in 2:12.20. Symboli Kris S. was just a neck back in third, followed by Magnaten, Jungle Pocket, Indigenous, Golan, No Reason, T.M. Ocean, Narita Top Road, Irresistible Jewel, Air Shakur, Bright Sky, American Boss, Storming Home, and Agnes Flight.

As the horses were circled on the turf course awaiting the results of the photo, both riders watched replays of the stretch drive on the track's big-screen television. Thinking he had won, Nakatani pumped his fist in the air just as Falbrav's number was posted on the tote board.

Drysdale came back from the stewards' room with a distressed look on his face. "It's impossible," he said to Sarafan's principal owner, Gary Tanaka. "They'd already made up their minds while I was trying to show them (on the patrol films) what happened. They said Corey came out, but he had room, there was nobody there, and he was entitled to the room. The other horse came in on us and boom, boom, boom, boom. But they said it was equal."

"My horse ran a great race, but the stewards did a bad job," Nakatani said. "He (Falbrav) bumped me four times, and I was just cruising up to pass him. They made up their mind before I got to talk with them. I don't believe Dettori ever made an attempt to straighten out his horse. I did."

Dettori said Nakatani caused the problem when Sarafan brushed Falbrav's hind quarters with his shoulder. "If he had won, I would have claimed foul," Dettori said later.

When the result was made official, a small delegation from Italy began a joyous celebration near the winner's enclosure. "It felt like one or two hours waiting for them to decide," said Luciano Salice, who bred and owns the Japan Cup winner.

Falbrav came into the race off a ninth-place showing in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. He is a two-time group I winner in Italy who did not like the soft going at Longchamp, according to his trainer, Luciano d'Auria.

Dettori had never ridden Falbrav prior to the Japan Cup. "But I watched him all year and was a really big fan of this horse," the rider said. "The trainer and I talked all week and he kept giving me instructions on how to ride him. I finally said, 'Shut up. Let's just take advantage of his inside draw and do the best we can with him.' "

The win was Dettori's second in the Japan Cup. He previously won with Singspiel in 1996. Sarafan's second-place finish was the best by an American horse since Paradise Creek's runner-up effort in 1994. No American runner has won since Golden Pheasant in 1991.