Irish eyes smiling through the rain as Cup hope Idaho serves up early treat
Scott Burton reports direct from the build-up to the Japan Cup
There was no contest as to the star turn during a thoroughly damp training session for the internationals at Tokyo racecourse on Thursday morning, as Japan Cup hope Idaho took to the turf track for an energetic breeze over seven furlongs.
His brother Highland Reel has often prefaced his international appearances with a fairly serious spin on the main track and Idaho – whose two long haul trips to Saratoga and Toronto this year have produced sixth and fourth-placed efforts – certainly warmed onlookers with a powerful display.
Idaho and Ryan Moore were drawn 14 of 17 later in the day but Aidan O’Brien’s travelling head lad, TJ Comerford, felt his speed from the gate would be able to overcome any problems.
Speaking during a news conference for connections of the four visiting horses, Comerford said: "He is very quick out of the stalls and is a good starter. He can slot in anywhere and you can ride him anyway you want. I think he needs a real strong gallop to see him at his best.
"Ground doesn’t seem to bother him because he won the Hardwicke and he was third in the King George. He gets a good strong mile and a half and is very consistent."
Idaho is arguably most famous for a race he failed to finish when he slipped up in the 2016 St Leger as a well-backed favourite.
Comerford was with the horse that day at Doncaster and also travelled him over to Saratoga for the Sword Dancer Stakes in August.
"He travelled here very well and I would say he is actually better here than when we took him to Saratoga. It is probably not a great clue because when we have taken him away he hasn’t run the way we expected him. But I just see a change in him and I hope I'm right.
"I do definitely think he will run a big race because he seems to be taking it well."
Carvalho blames wet track for Guignol no-show
While fellow German raider Iquitos and the Australian challenger Boom Time did steady canters around the inner dirt track, Guignol was kept to light duties in the stabling area.
Having also cantered on the dirt on Wednesday, Jean-Pierre Carvalho explained the heavy overnight and early morning rain had caused him to change his plans.
During the international press conference, Carvalho was asked whether there was any problem with the horse.
"I always take it easy in the run up to a big race and, with the rain, the sand has got very deep so we stayed in the stable block. He is ready, all right."
French-born Carvalho has plenty of Japan Cup experience, having finished sixth with Ivanhowe in 2014 before bringing Ito over for the race 12 months later.
He expects the ground to be back towards the quick side by Sunday. "They’re not used to deep ground here like we are in Europe but it’s not really what we would call soft," he said.
Shimizu determined to enjoy remaining races with Kitasan Black
Undoubtedly the country's favourite racehorse currently in training, Kitasan Black is owned by singer Ono Shoji, who famously serenades the crowd after victory.
The five-year-old kicked off his three-leg fairwell tour when defeating Satono Crown in the Tenno Sho Autumn last month, a race run on a typhoon-affected track and thus unusually testing for this time of year.
Kitasan Black will as usual be ridden by the legendary Yutaka Take in Sunday's Longines-sponsored showpiece, before his planned final appearance in the Arima Kinen at Nakayama on Christmas Eve.
Trainer Hisashi Shimuzu believes his charge has bounced out of what looked a tough struggle with Satono Crown but admits he is not looking forward to waving Kitasan Black off to his stud career at Shadai Farm.
"The one thing above all I would like to express to Kitasan Black is my appreciation," 45-year-old Shimuzu told the Japan Racing Association website.
"Of course, the pressure is on now that his retirement has been announced, but I have no worries when it comes to him. There is no risk of an accident and I am not feeling the pressure as much as I used to. One more thing – there’s not much more time left, but with the time we do have, I want to enjoy it together."
Japan Cup flashback: 2005 Frankie and Alkaased take Tokyo by storm
The history of the race is in some ways a neat summary of the rise of the Japan as an international force, with the early years being dominated by the visitors, before the home side went on an unbroken streak of success.
The Luca Cumani-trained Alkaased was the last horse trained outside Japan to win the Cup and holds two important places in the history of the race.
Towed along at lightning fractions by Tap Dance City, Alkaased's winning time of 2 mins 22.1 secs remains the race record, while it gave Frankie Dettori a third win in the race, following successes with Singspiel in 1996 and Fantastic Light in 2000.
While Take moved to four wins in the race courtesy of Kitasan Black last year, Dettori's record is all the more remarkable as he has ridden in only eight Japan Cups, having also finished third aboard Ouija Board (2006) and High-Rise (1999).
Dettori and Cumani had to endure a nervous 20-minute wait for Alkaased's number to be hoisted by the judge before his nose defeat of the late-charging Heart's Cry was confirmed.