The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby comes down to the Hyacinth S. at Tokyo Sunday (late Saturday night U.S. time, 12:25 a.m. EST). The third and concluding leg of the Japan Road, the Hyacinth will decide the series winner – and the invitation to Derby 144 at Churchill Downs.
U.S. Triple Crown nominee Ruggero captured the first leg, the November 25 Cattleya Sho, and brings 10 points into the Hyacinth over the same track and about one-mile trip. But the Hyacinth offers 30 points to the winner, so Ruggero can be overtaken on the leaderboard by any of his talented rivals. And there’s no shortage of challengers ready to confront a colt who still has some questions to answer.
After beginning his career on turf with mixed results, Ruggero switched to dirt for the Cattleya Sho and immediately took to the surface. By design, trainer Yuichi Shikato skipped the second scoring race on the Japan Road, the Zen Nippon Nisai Yushun, won impressively by Le Vent Se Leve. Ideally the Hyacinth would have served up a clash between the two points leaders, but Le Vent Se Leve has since gone off the trail due to a setback.
While Ruggero has been freshened ahead of the Hyacinth, his Cattleya Sho form has taken a few knocks in the interim. He’s therefore meeting a much better group of opponents in the Hyacinth, a listed stakes race, than in the Cattleya Sho, an allowance race. He also gets a new rider in Yuichi Fukunaga.
Top Japanese jockey Keita Tosaki, formerly the regular rider for Ruggero, instead retains his partnership with Dark Repulser. The only other Hyacinth runner on the Japan Road scoreboard, Dark Repulser earned 1 point for finishing fourth behind Le Vent Se Leve last time out. But the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun was previously undefeated, having won his first two starts here at Tokyo. There’s likely more to come from Dark Repulser, a half-brother to past Japanese dirt star Espoir City.
Work and Love, aside from Ruggero, is the only other entrant currently Triple Crown nominated. The winner of two straight on dirt – a week apart – in early December, he showed little when trying turf in the December 28 Hopeful (G1). As a son of 2006 Blue Grass (G1) upsetter and Derby also-ran Sinister Minister, Work and Love is entitled to be happier back on dirt. But his deep-closing style may leave him with too much to do late in the Hyacinth, especially since he’s shortening up in distance. Yasunari Iwata, who was aboard for his allowance win at Hanshin two back, regains the mount.
Remember Lani, who attracted quite a fan club through the 2016 Triple Crown? His connections – the Maeda family of North Hills Co. – field a contender in Bahn Frei, winner of two of four starts. By outstanding dirt stallion Gold Allure (himself a son of Sunday Silence), Bahn Frei is out of a daughter of Unbridled’s Song and U.S. champion juvenile filly Folklore.
Owner Yoshio Matsumoto has two entrants, both sons of his colorbearer Meisho Bowler. Meisho Opus has taken a few starts to figure things out, but enters on a two-race winning streak featuring a record-setting coup at Chukyo. Meisho Isana, out of mare by U.S. Hall of Famer Point Given, is 2-for-2 and keeps legendary rider Yutaka Take aboard.
British ace Ryan Moore picks up the mount on Great Time, a well-connected son of noted Japanese sire King Kamehameha. He sports the colors of Kaneko Makoto Holdings (of Deep Impact fame), and trainer Hideki Fujiwara has conditioned major winners on both turf and dirt, including Great Time’s dam, multiple stakes victress Miracle Legend, and her half-brother Roman Legend. Great Time wheels back just a week after improving his record to 2-for-4 in a Kyoto allowance. In his prior start, he was second to front-running Sumahama, who’s won two in a row.
Danke Schon is by Henny Hughes, the sire of multiple Eclipse champion Beholder. A neck away from being unbeaten in three starts, he just got up in an allowance over the Hyacinth course and distance.
Ask Hard Spun gets the services of Christophe Lemaire after going 2-for-2 on dirt at Kyoto. The Hard Spun colt was ninth in his career debut on turf. Taiki Ferveur is winless from four tries on turf, but 2-for-2 on dirt. Unbeaten Wakamiya Oji has won both of his outings on the Nakayama dirt.
Neko Washi, by Empire Maker (the grandsire of American Pharoah and second as the favorite in the 2003 Derby), just rallied to break his maiden at this track and trip. But now he faces winners for the first time.
Nishino Trans Am, a Kentucky-bred son of 2013 Derby hero Orb, is just 1-for-8 so far. Vip Raising, winner of four of 10 starts on the National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit, gets a class check in the elite Japan Racing Association level. Morino Last Boss, a three-time NAR winner, looks up against it after going unplaced in his last three.
Of the 16 horses in the Hyacinth, eight are nominated to the March 31 UAE Derby (G2), the Derby points race at Meydan on Dubai World Cup night – Ruggero, Dark Repulser, Bahn Frei, Great Time, Meisho Isana, Meisho Opus, Taiki Ferveur, and Nishino Trans Am.
So however the Japanese contenders fare in the Hyacinth on the Japan Road, they have another possible avenue to Kentucky.
For more detailed analysis, check out the Brisnet.com Hyacinth preview.
Friday night update: Here are the Hyacinth post positions, courtesy of japanracing.jp: