Joshua Tree: Johnny Murtagh takes over on Ed Dunlop's globetrotterPICTURE: Woodbine/Michael Burns Photography
European raiders face strong home team
Preview: Japan, Sunday 6.55am GMT ('as live' on ATR)
Tokyo: Japan Cup (Grade 1) 1m4f, turf, 3yo+
THE European contingent of Joshua Tree, Simenon and Dunaden face a formidable challenge in Tokyo on Sunday when they attempt to unseat a strong domestic defence in the 33rd running of the Japan Cup.
Ryan Moore partners star Japanese filly Gentildonna (Sei Ishizaka) as she attempts to become the first back-to-back winner of the 521 million yen (£3.23m) contest. The four-year-old is vying for favouritism alongside the top-class Gold Ship (Naosuke Sugai/Hiroyuki Uchida), with the three visitors accorded relative longshot status.
It is not hard to appreciate why. The Japan Cup used to represent easy pickings for overseas horses, which accounted for eight of the first ten winners after the Japan Cup was inaugurated in 1981 as the forerunner of the nation's drive to become integrated into the international racing community.
After massive bloodstock investment in the next three decades, such has been the improvement in Japanese horses that their flagship race has stayed at home in all but one of the last ten years, the Luca Cumani-trained Alkaased being the sole overseas winner during that period when he won a thriller in 2005 under Frankie Dettori.
With Moore riding Gentildonna as part of his short-term contract for the Japan Racing Association, Johnny Murtagh takes over on the Ed Dunlop-trained Joshua Tree, bidding to become the fifth British-trained winner after Jupiter Island (1986), Singspiel (1996), Pilsudski (1997) and Alkaased (2005), the most recent overseas winner.
Joshua Tree recently completed a notable feat when he became the first horse to win the Canadian International three times - for three different trainers and ridden by three different jockeys.
The six-year-old has been handed the outside post in a 17-runner field. In 32 previous runnings of Japan's richest race, no horse has ever won drawn higher than 16, though admittedly only 15 horses have started from such wide gates and lower double-figure posts have been no barrier to success over the years in the 1m4f event.
Indeed, a total of 17 winners have come from between gates ten and 16, which is good news for Europe's other two representatives as French-trained Dunaden is drawn ten, four inside Willie Mullins' Simenon.
Dunaden, who carries the Pearl Bloodstock colours, is ridden by retained jockey Jamie Spencer while Richard Hughes retains the ride on Simenon, whom he rode to finish fourth in the Emirates Melbourne Cup.
Dunaden, winner of the Melbourne Cup in 2011, arrives in Japan after a down-the-field effort in this year's running of the Flemington two-miler.
Connections of all three European horses have made no secret of their admiration for the formidable Gentildonna, whose regular partner Yasunari Iwata has been jocked off after defeats in the Dubai Sheema Classic (where she had Dunaden behind), the Takarazuka Kinen (behind Gold Ship) and last month in the Tenno Sho.
Even without the likes of Orfevre and Kizuna, who both made the frame in the Arc, the home defences looks formidable enough with last year's Arima Kinen victor Gold Ship another leading fancy. The field also includes the 2010 Japanese Derby winner Eishin Flash (Hideaki Fujiwara/Mirco Demuro), making his fourth attempt, while William Buick has the ride on locally trained outsider Tosen Jordan (Yasutoshi Ikee).
There is a bit of a whisper locally for Uncoiled (Yoshito Yahagi/Hiroki Goto), for whom fast ground is a legitimate concern.
What the connections say
Yasuo Tomomichi, trainer of Verxina
"After the Queen Elizabeth II Cup the jockey said she was just way too settled and that there just wasn't anything when he asked for more. In the saddling enclosure before the race she had seemed unusually quiet, different from her usual self. There's not been much time between races but I don't see a problem there."
Yoshitomi Shibata, jockey of Nakayama Knight
"I don't think there's much difference between him and the others and there is room for him to slip in there and win. I'm also confident that he's going to be 100-120 per cent on raceday."
Yoshito Yahagi, trainer of Uncoiled
"If it had just rained on the day of the Tenno Sho, he would have done even better but even so he was able to keep up with the pace of a G1, which just shows how much stronger he's gotten. We did give him a bit of a rest after that but he recovered quickly and he's in nice shape. He's improved since the start of the autumn. He's handled a fast track better than I thought he would."
Hideaki Fujiwara, trainer of Eishin Flash
"The horse has maintained a high level as far as what he's capable of and I believe he's in good shape. We've got him over any fatigue he had from the Tenno Sho nicely but I must say the winner was just too good that day. Every year, I've run him in the Japan Cup and we haven't got the results we wanted but he is a Japanese Derby winner, over the same distance, the same course and I've held on to the dream of winning all along."
Sei Ishizaka, trainer of Gentildonna
"Her run in the Tenno Sho was just not her but last week she worked in tandem and that went well too and I think Ryan Moore has got a good handle on the horse. She's done everything she needed to this week and she's eating well. Her past three races have all been runs coming back after layoffs, but this time there shouldn't be anything working against her. I have no worries about her condition. "This year we've got some powerful new players in the line-up, but she put up a great fight last year and she likes the 2,400 metres at Tokyo."
Mikel Delzangles, trainer of Dunaden
"It was a long journey from Melbourne through Hong Kong but he recovered very quickly. He's fresh and fit enough and the likely fast pace is good for him, but after seeing the turf this morning, I hope the track won't be too firm - I don't want him to hurt himself, that's my only concern. The draw (10), I think is very good; he will sit in midfield."
Kazuo Fujisawa, trainer of Lelouch
"Last time out in the Copa Republica Argentina, he was coming off a layoff and the distance was long, but still he managed to finish third and I think he ran a good race. This time, with that sharpener behind him, I'm expecting him to have improved."
Naosuke Sugai, trainer of Gold Ship
"He was very ready for his last race but the weather was unseasonably warm that day and that seems to have affected him. He was not in a good mood, and on top of it being a very fast track, he was carrying 58 kg, more than the others. He was drawn wide and the pace was heated from the start so he was forced to run wide and so he was always not quite in gear. Now I think that I've got him to peak quite nicely. He is totally switched on now, totally ready. He's the kind of horse that no matter what the distance, no matter what the course, he can always switch gears."
Willie Mullins, trainer of Simenon
"Emmet (Mullins), who has been in charge of his preparation, is really happy with the way Simenon has settled in. He moved to the racecourse stables from the quarantine station during the week and all has gone well with his work. While he has a high draw, I'm told it isn't impossible to run a big race from stall 14. The ground is on the fast side of firm but he likes it quick so that shouldn't be a problem."
Ed Dunlop, trainer of Joshua Tree
"We're under no illusions about the size of the task here - we love coming here and we've done well but we're realistic enough to know that Japanese horses are formidable and we've got a bad draw on the outside. But he looks to be moving well, his weight's good and he looks well for the time of year. If we can pick up something that would be great but I think Gold Ship is the horse to beat."