Japan is triumphant in epic York battle as brave Crystal Ocean is floored again
Debate has raged over whether Crystal Ocean deserves to be called the world's best horse. Indisputably true is that over just 25 days he has waged war in two of the best finishes seen anywhere in the world this year.
Yet this time, like last time, he was denied, as Japan emerged triumphant at the end of a pulsating York slugfest.
Romantics may have cheered on the older horse as he sought compensation for that glorious King George eclipse. Flat racing, however, is seldom a romantic business, and Crystal Ocean's latest herculean effort proved not quite enough, with Japan, masterfully prepared by Aidan O'Brien this year, edging to Juddmonte International glory by a head.
How different this was to the last time Japan visited the Knavesmire. On Dante day in May he was friendless with punters and ran accordingly, staying on from the rear like an athlete in need of the outing. The race was indeed needed – O'Brien never pretended otherwise – but it was a race that provided the perfect launchpad to a campaign that delivered its peak moment in York's most coveted prize.
From finishing third in the Derby, Japan went on to be victorious at Royal Ascot and then again in the Grand Prix de Paris, but in defeating Crystal Ocean he took his standing to another level. Now, following a potential tilt at the Irish Champion Stakes, the Coolmore colt will attempt to do what his International victim found just beyond him at Ascot.
For Japan, and hopefully for Crystal Ocean, Enable and the Arc await. What a contest that will be. What a contest this one was.
"Every month he gets better," said O'Brien. "From the time he started here in the Dante, when we had rushed him and he was only just ready, he has got better and better and better. It has been step up, step up, step up all the way. It's incredible."
As was a prize worthy of its £1,062,500 purse. It was just over two furlongs out that James Doyle sent Crystal Ocean past Japan's front-running stablemate Circus Maximus. Ryan Moore had followed the 11-10 favourite from the moment the gates opened and once Ballydoyle had lost the lead Moore set about regaining it for the team on Japan. The horse he was riding and the horse he has ridden so often fought a furious finish through the final quarter-mile, but at the point where it mattered Moore was on the right animal.
"I'm delighted with him and Ryan was over the moon," said O'Brien.
"He came out of Longchamp very well and had a very easy race there, even though he only won by three-parts of a length.
"The three-year-olds are better than anyone thinks – and that's the best form of any three-year-old this season."
When Crystal Ocean was a three-year-old he, too, had run in the Dante and he, too, had been beaten. On that day he took third, as he did the following month at Ascot. Since then, when he has not won he has finished second and whether winning or losing he has always given his all. As such, it was suggested to Sir Michael Stoute the five-year-old is as brave as a lion.
"Yes, all of that – but he just didn't win," said Stoute. "As usual he ran a blinder. He's as tough as any of them and such an honest horse."
Nobody knows that more than Doyle. He was on Crystal Ocean's back both here and at Ascot. Like the warrior beneath him, he dug desperately deep on both occasions. For that reason, it was no surprise he seemed utterly dejected straight after the scrap.
"I don't want to talk about it, to be honest," said Doyle on his way to the weighing room. He was not being rude or surly, for neither is remotely in the young man's nature. Rather, here was a competitor who felt utterly floored. Forty minutes later, approached by Racing TV's Lydia Hislop, he had all the right words.
"It's heartbreaking," said Doyle, who had also finished second for Stoute 12 months earlier on Poet's Word.
"Year after year it's a spectacular race, and to have come close in it a couple of times is frustrating, but I couldn't be more proud of my horse. He did everything today. He always brings his A-game. He did that yet again today but he was just run out of it.
"At this trip he probably would prefer a bit of ease in the ground to really let himself go. He swapped leads a couple of times but he's so tough and game. Just look at his head carriage through the last furlong. Even in conditions that are a little bit difficult for him he still gives his all. We're lucky to have him."
We were lucky to have this race, in which Japan displayed class and courage that will serve him well over the coming weeks.
"We knew he has the autumn coming," said O'Brien. "That's why we wanted to come back to a mile and a quarter today and it's why we didn't want to bottom him."
They wanted to save something because everything leads to October 6 and a return trip to Paris. The Juddmonte International hero will go there in a bid to thwart racing's favourite girl. Right now, Japan is the sport's rising son.
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