Fifteen 3-year-olds, including one owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, are set for the Hyacinth Stakes Feb. 19 at Tokyo Racecourse, which carries a qualifying opportunity to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
The Hyacinth is the second of two races in Japan designated by Churchill Downs as qualifying races for the Louisville classic. Separate and apart from the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series that includes United States and Dubai races, the two points races in Japan offer one runner a chance to compete in the Derby.
The first of the two races, the Cattleya Sho, was run Nov. 26, with Mont Saint Legame earning 40 qualifying points for defeating Caucus by 1 1/4 lengths, with Blanc Eclat third and Lavapies fourth. Mont Saint Legame, by Came Home, is undefeated in two starts and will make his first start since the Cattleya Sho in the Hyacinth.
Caucus, a Street Sense colt bred by Darley in Japan and owned by Sheikh Mohammed, earned 16 points in the Cattleya Sho.
The Hyacinth awards Derby points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 schedule. In terms of earning a spot in the Derby, Mont Saint Legame would earn the top spot with a win and he could secure it with a runner-up finish to any horse but Caucus.
If the connections of the top point-earner decline the Derby invitation, the opportunity goes to the second qualifier, then to the third if necessary. If all three are ruled out, the invitation is withdrawn. If one of the top three accepts the invitation they will have an automatic berth into the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby option doubles down on the performance last year of Japan runner Lani, who won the 2015 Cattelya Sho, finished fifth in the Hyacinth, detoured to Dubai to win the UAE Derby (G2) and then competed in all three Triple Crown races, finishing third in the Belmont Stakes (G1).
A runner who opts to make the trip to North America this year also would figure to consider a lucrative Belmont Stakes offer. Last month, the New York Racing Association announced a $1 million bonus for any Japan-based horse that wins this year's Belmont.
While much of the pre-race attention focuses on the Cattelya Sho performers, there are a few others waiting to seize an opportunity.
Epicharis, a Gold Allure colt, is undefeated in three starts with two stakes wins to his credit. Christophe Lemaire has the mount. Ryan Moore, a frequent and very successful visitor to Tokyo Racecourse, will ride the highly regarded Foggy Night, a Japanese-bred colt by Tapit who won his only start as a 2-year-old and will make his seasonal debut.
The only American-bred entry is Matera Sky, a Speightstown colt out of the Rahy mare Mostaqeleh who won a maiden race in October. As usual in modern Japanese racing, however, many of the others descend from American stars with Sunday Silence, Medaglia d'Oro , Forty Niner, I'll Have Another , and French Deputy prominent in their pedigrees.
The lone filly in the race is Stapes Maria, a daughter of Pyro and granddaughter of Pulpit, whose dam, Win Blossom, is a granddaughter of Sunday Silence. She finished her juvenile season with a pair of victories sprinting.
The Hyacinth is run at 1,600 meters (about one mile) on the Tokyo dirt track, which features a long stretch with an uphill climb. The purse is ¥34.2 million, or slightly more than US$300,000.