Japan's finest will face an unusually strong lineup of foreign rivals in the Japan Cup in association with Longines (G1) Nov. 26 at Tokyo Racecourse.
The international runners include stars from Ireland, Australia, and Germany; two of them runners in this year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1) at Chantilly. As usual, the visitors have their work cut out for them. The last 11 editions of Japan's signature race have been won by local horses and the 2016 winner, Kitasan Black, returns after adding three group 1 wins this season.
This year's home team also includes Satono Crown, who defeated Kitasan Black among others in the Takarazuka Kinen (G1) and also won the Longines Hong Kong Vase (G1) last December at Sha Tin in Hong Kong.
Heading the list of 3-year-olds are Soul Stirring, a Frankel filly whose record includes a victory in the Yushun Himba (G1), the Japanese Oaks, and Rey de Oro (Jpn), winner of the Tokyo Yushun (G1) (Japanese Derby).
Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, chasing his 28th group 1 victory of the season, sends Idaho, a full brother to Highland Reel who has competed at the highest level in England and Ireland but looks for a breakthrough at this level. The 4-year-old Galileo colt finished sixth in the Sword Dancer Stakes (G1T) at Saratoga Race Course, eighth in the Arc, and fourth in the Pattison Canadian International (G1T) at Woodbine in his last three starts.
Assistant trainer Thomas Comerford said all was well with Idaho while training on a rainy morning three days before race day.
"I'd actually say he's better here than he has been when we took him to Saratoga," Comerford said. "So, it's probably not a great clue because every time we took him away, he hasn't run the way we expected him. But I just see a change in him and I do definitely think he'll run a big race and because he seems to be taking it well. Maybe he's grown up."
Iquitos, a 5-year-old Adlerflug horse, trained by Hans-Jurgen Groschel, visited Tokyo Racecourse last year and was far from embarrassed with a seventh-place finish behind Kitasan Black. He has had six starts since then, finishing first or second in each save the Arc, where he was seventh. His wins include the Grosser Dallmayr-Preis Bayerisches Zuchtrennen (G1) at Munich July 30.
Assistant trainer Janina Reese said Iquitos is ready. "His form hasn't changed from last year but he may have put on some weight," Reese said. "He's an honest horse who always gives 100 percent."
Iquitos will have to deal not only with the top local runners but also with Guignol, a 5-year-old son of Cape Cross who has defeated Iquitos three times this season, including a neck win in the Grosser Preis von Bayern (G1) Nov. 1 at Munich.
Guignol's only international travel, however, has been to France and Italy and assistant trainer Michael Cadeddu said steps are being taken to mitigate the effects of unfamiliar surroundings.
"We are more concerned about the huge crowd and noise he will face, which is very new to him. We intend to school him as many times as possible," Cadeddu said.
Up from Australia is Boom Time, a 6-year-old by Flying Spur who is the first Australian-based Japan Cup contender in 14 years.
Boom Time, winner of the BMW Caulfield Cup (G1) on Oct. 21, wasn't able to handle the two-mile marathon distance of the Melbourne Cup (G1) in his last outing, finishing 15th. But owner and trainer David Hayes said that really was no surprise.
"Yes, the Melbourne Cup was just too far for him, said Hayes, who won the 1990 Japan Cup with Better Loosen Up. "He's actually bred to run about 1,200 meters. So I think he read his pedigree with 600 meters to run."
The race, worth $5.6 million, is run over 2,400 meters or about 1 1/2 miles, left-handed around the Tokyo Racecourse turf. The horses encounter an uphill climb when they enter the long stretch run, usually providing a scramble through the final stage of the race.