One year after Master Fencer emerged from the Japan Road and performed creditably in both the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Belmont (G1), 20 Japanese-based sophomores have been nominated to the 2020 Triple Crown. Among that number are the top two on the Japan Road leaderboard, Vacation and Dieu du Vin, the winners of last fall’s scoring races. But fresh faces loom too, chief among them the American Pharoah colts Cafe Pharoah and Nile River.

Vacation earned 20 points, and pro tem leadership, by capturing the Dec. 18 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki with a rousing late charge. A son of Japanese champion dirt horse Espoir City (who was 10th to Blame and Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic [G1]), Vacation has won four of five starts. His only loss, a third on Sept. 17 at Ohi, came off a three-month break. The Kenichi Takatsuki trainee is the lone nominee from the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, and the only one belonging to Japan’s local NAR circuit. The other 19 are all from the higher-level JRA.


Undefeated Dieu du Vin opened the Japan Road in the Nov. 23 Cattleya Sho at Tokyo, where the favorite followed up on his debut maiden score over the same track and trip to score 10 points. Being by Declaration of War out of a Tapit mare from the family of 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic upsetter Cat Thief, Dieu du Vin brings a strong pedigree to bear on the trail. His trainer, Yukihiro Kato, has conditioned Grade/Group 1 winners Nonkomo Yume (on the Japanese dirt) and Shadow Gate (hero of the 2007 Singapore Airlines International Cup [G1]).

Four others from the Cattleya Sho have been nominated – third-placer Daimei Corrida; fifth Danon Pharaoh; 13th American Baby; and 15th Clepat.

Daimei Corrida, with 2 points to his credit, has performed much better since switching from turf to dirt. From the first Japanese-bred crop of Eskendereya, who was the red-hot favorite for the 2010 Kentucky Derby before sustaining a career-ending injury, Daimei Corrida broke his maiden in his first dirt try at Kyoto. The Naoyuki Morita pupil placed in his next pair at Tokyo. Second on the cutback to about seven furlongs, he raced fairly evenly when third in the Cattleya Sho’s metric mile. Daimei Corrida is out of a half-sister to the mercurial but gifted Japanese champion Gold Ship, a multiple Grade 1 star and dual classic winner on turf.

Danon Pharaoh, an American Pharoah colt who brought approximately $1.6 million at the JRHA Select Sale, is arguably better than his wide-trip fifth in the Cattleya Sho. Runner-up to Dieu du Vin in a newcomers’ race, Danon Pharaoh came right back to score handily in a Tokyo maiden. The Cattleya Sho was his third race within a month, and that combined with post 16 might have been too much for the forwardly-placed type.

Out of 2010 Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Crisp, Danon Pharaoh hails from the deep female line of 2016 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) victor Tamarkuz. He also has trainer Yoshito Yahagi in his corner. Having developed several outstanding performers already, Yahagi had his best season yet in 2019 with Japanese Horse of the Year Lys Gracieux and champion 2-year-old male Contrail his leading lights. Note that he has had success at the top level abroad too – Lys Gracieux dominated Australia’s prestigious Cox Plate (G1) last October, and in 2016, Real Steel took the Dubai Turf (G1) on Dubai World Cup night.

Stablemate Clepat, an American Pharoah filly, is tougher to envision making a dent on the trail. Since breaking her maiden at Hanshin, Clepat has retreated to next-to-last in the Cattleya Sho and last of eight in a Feb. 1 allowance at Kokura. Both of those came on off tracks, so possibly she prefers it fast.

Cafe Pharoah, on the other hand, is an exciting prospect for their sire. Trained by Noriyuki Hori, whose past stars include Japanese Horse of the Year Maurice, Cafe Pharoah decimated a Dec. 14 newcomers’ event at Nakayama in a front-running rout. Especially noteworthy was his ability to rate on the lead before roaring away from the field turning into the stretch. The distant runner-up, Barnard Loop, has since come back to romp himself and flatter his conqueror.

Cafe Pharoah, a $475,000 OBS March purchase, is out of the Grade 2-winning More Than Ready mare Mary’s Follies, making him a half-brother to graded scorers Regal Glory and Night Prowler.

Fellow Pharoah colt Nile River likewise won at first asking, but in stalking fashion. Angling off the rail and staying on strongly, the Hideaki Fujiwara trainee did well to run down the leader at Tokyo Nov. 9. The son of Smart Strike mare Jeweliana sold for $775,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s Gulfstream Sale last March.

Fujiwara has a second nominee in Corral Nocturne. By the Unbridled’s Song stallion Emcee, the Kentucky-bred justified favoritism in a Feb. 2 newcomers’ race at Tokyo. In the process, he got an education in extricating himself from the rail and steering around foes to win cozily.

Tagano Beauty shaped like an up-and-comer when winning his first two on dirt, rolling from far back in an Aug. 10 newcomers’ race at Niigata and last-to-first in an Oct. 15 Tokyo allowance. But a switch to turf hasn’t worked. Fourth in the Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) and sixth in the Jan. 12 Shinzan Kinen (G3), the son of Henny Hughes (Beholder’s sire) stands to improve back on the dirt for Masato Nishizono.  

Yaugau, winner of both starts since his debut, sports a fine pedigree. His sire is the successful Sunday Silence stallion Gold Allure (also responsible for Vacation’s sire Espoir City). Yaugau is out of a mare by Hall of Famer Tiznow, the only two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, and from the family of champion Chief’s Crown. Yaugau’s fourth dam is Hall of Famer Chris Evert, who swept New York’s Filly Triple Crown in 1974.

Trained by Naosuke Sugai, who prepared the aforementioned Gold Ship as well as champion Just a Way, Yaugau was a closing second in a July 28 newcomers’ event at Sapporo. He wheeled back to break his maiden there Aug. 10 but didn’t resurface until a Dec. 8 allowance at Nakayama, where he rallied to prevail by a half-length. Spot him (number 13 in blinkers) advancing into contention on the outside:

Sixth as the favorite in that Nakayama allowance was Godolphin homebred Longonot, who arguably had a tactical excuse for his lone loss. The Mizuki Takayanagi trainee had wired his newcomers’ race at Nakayama, drawing off under wraps by nine lengths. Hold-up tactics next time didn’t work. Whether it was because he broke outward from post 16, or a different rider, Longonot was taken out of his game. The son of Pyro, and half-brother to 2014 Dubai World Cup (G1) star African Story, bounced back on the front end with a Tokyo allowance score Feb. 1.

Fellow Godolphin homebred Fire Lance is also by Pyro. Second to odds-on Kingsbarns in a Dec. 21 newcomers’ race at Nakayama, Fire Lance subsequently crushed a maiden at the same track. The competition was questionable, but he dispatched them readily enough on the lead. The Yoshiyasu Takahashi pupil is bred on the notable cross of Pulpit (Pyro’s sire) over Unbridled, with his dam being the stakes-winning Unbridled’s Song mare Gift of Song.

American Baby (by Bernardini) is one of three nominees representing Master Fencer’s owner, Katsumi Yoshizawa. He debuted with a five-length romp at Tokyo Nov. 2 for Yasushi Shono, trainer of reigning Japan Cup (G1) winner Suave Richard. Accordingly American Baby was expected to do better than fading to 13th in the Cattleya Sho. In his subsequent start at Kyoto Jan. 18, American Baby tired to fourth. But his pedigree remains alluring. His dam, Nile Queen, is a daughter of Pioneerof the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) and a half-sister to 2016 Preakness (G1) victor Exaggerator.

Yoshizawa’s other two nominees, both by Tapit, are with different trainers. American Seed, a son of Grade 1 turf vixen Sweet Talker, has raced on turf so far for Kenichi Fujioka. A stalk-and-pounce winner in a Hanshin newcomers’ race at about 1 1/8 miles Dec. 8, American Seed was just collared by a neck going about 1 1/4 miles at Kyoto Jan. 5.

In contrast, Yoshizawa’s American Face has raced exclusively on dirt for Hirofumi Toda. Out of a Giant’s Causeway half-sister to Grade 1 heroine Star Billing, from the family of multiple Grade 1 millionaires Stellar Jayne and Starrer, American Face broke his maiden second time out at Nakayama, but was 10th in a Jan. 25 allowance at the same track and about 1 1/8-mile trip.

Another owner with U.S. classic experience, the Maedas’ North Hills Co. that brought Lani to the 2016 Triple Crown, has two potential participants for 2020 in Ugo and Vorst.

Ugo upset the same Tokyo newcomers’ race where American Face was fourth on debut, pressing the pace and sweeping to a 3 1/2-length tally. The Ryo Takahashi trainee didn’t follow through as the favorite next time, however, when 10th in a Chukyo allowance. But it’s too early to give up on the homebred by Gold Allure and out of the stakes-placed Ventus, a daughter of 2002 Derby and Preakness hero War Emblem.

Vorst is a closer who has arrived in time in two of four starts for trainer Hiroshi Miyamoto. From the first crop of Kizuna, a champion son of Deep Impact on turf, Vorst inherits dirt proficiency from his dam’s side featuring French Deputy as broodmare sire and Capote as the sire of his second dam. Closing from near the rear to score by a neck in his Sapporo unveiling Aug. 24, he was a non-threatening seventh at Kyoto Nov. 16 and a better fourth at Hanshin Dec. 15. Vorst (yellow blinkers) packed a strong punch to get up on the wire in a Jan. 6 allowance back at Kyoto.

Trainer Hideyuki Mori, the first Japanese horseman to try the Derby when sending Ski Captain (14th in the 1995 Run for the Roses), could try again. His Full Flat shipped for last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and finished fifth at odds of 89-1. It was a surprise to see him come within a neck of placing fourth at Santa Anita, since he’d never run on dirt before and had just one win from three turf starts.

His Breeders’ Cup result didn’t earn him much support in the same Jan. 18 Kyoto allowance with American Baby, for Full Flat went off as the 7-1 fourth choice in a five-horse field. Full Flat came home second in his Japanese return, besting American Baby, but needs to improve. On the plus side, he’s by Speightstown and out of a Medaglia d’Oro half-sister to the brilliant Stravinsky, and his second dam is 1991 Beverly D. (G1) heroine Fire the Groom.

Mori has another Triple Crown nominee in Pingxiang, who is also by Speightstown and from the family of one of his best sons, Munnings. Pingxiang didn’t win until his fifth outing, but first on dirt, at Kyoto Jan. 18. Favored to make it two in a row back at Kyoto Sunday, Pingxiang wound up sixth. Aside from class questions, he’s yet to race beyond 1,200 meters (about 6 furlongs). His relative Munnings was a sprinter, and unless Pingxiang gets more stamina from his broodmare sire Unbridled’s Song, he might follow suit.

Master Fencer’s trainer, Koichi Tsunoda, nominated Hishi Taizan. Starting out on turf like Master Fencer, he won a Chukyo maiden last summer but failed to progress on that surface. Unlike Master Fencer, Hishi Taizan flopped in his dirt debut in a Feb. 2 Kyoto allowance. The son of the Deep Impact stallion Tosen Homarebashi set the pace before giving way on the far turn and retreating to last. In a presumed “too-bad-to-be-true” effort, we’ll need to see Hishi Taizan on the dirt again before making declarative judgments.

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As we look forward to the 2020 Japan Road resuming with the Feb. 23 Hyacinth at Tokyo, it’s worth recalling that Master Fencer wasn’t the top dirt sophomore in his homeland. He garnered the invitation because the three leading points earners declined, and his connections accepted as the next in line.

If Master Fencer could come from the clouds in the Kentucky Derby and officially place sixth, beaten a grand total of four lengths, and finish fifth – just three lengths behind – in the Belmont, what might a star Japanese 3-year-old accomplish? Let’s hope we find out this year!