The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby begins at Tokyo Saturday (late Friday night U.S. time) with the Cattleya Sho.
An allowance race over a metric mile on dirt, the Cattleya Sho is the first of an expanded three-race scoring series in Japan. The second leg, the December 13 Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki, is a new addition to the points chase for this year. The Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo in February remains the final opportunity for a Japanese-based horse to emerge as the points leader in this separate “Japan Road” scoring system, and thereby secure a Kentucky Derby (G1) invitation.
The Cattleya Sho offers Derby points, for the Japan leaderboard only, on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the respective top four finishers, as does the December race. The Hyacinth, as the grand finale, is worth triple the points on a 30-12-6-3 basis.
Although the Cattleya Sho did not furnish a Derby starter on last year’s inaugural Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, the 2015 edition of this race was won by Lani, the idiosyncratic gray who went on to compete in all three jewels of the U.S. Triple Crown.
Eight juveniles are in the line-up for Saturday’s renewal, with Weltall the lone unbeaten contender. From the male line of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (G1)-winning Hall of Famer Sunday Silence, Weltall is by the top-class Japanese dirt campaigner Smart Falcon. His dam, Silk Universal by 1988 Florida Derby (G1) hero Brian’s Time, has already produced two stakes winners. Weltall’s further female line is responsible for several high-profile runners, including Narita Brian, winner of the Japanese Triple Crown in 1994, and Sunday Break, the 2002 Peter Pan (G2) scorer and Belmont S. (G1) third-placer.
Weltall justified favoritism in a newcomers’ race on October 8, driving to a four-length victory at this track and trip. Trained by Yukihiro Kato, who prepared Nonkono Yume to win the 2015 Japan Dirt Derby and enjoyed overseas success with Shadow Gate in the 2007 Singapore Airlines International Cup (G1), he is piloted by Japan’s leading rider, expat Frenchman Christophe Lemaire. The strong favorite in the early Cattleya Sho betting, Weltall will break from the rail.
Meiner Yukitsubaki, a son of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion I’ll Have Another, likewise won a newcomers’ event at about seven furlongs here on June 17. Not seen again until an October 14 allowance going this metric mile, he finished fourth to smart prospect Le Vent Se Leve in juvenile course-record time. Meiner Yukitsubaki could improve with that outing under his belt for Noboru Takagi, who’s trained such outstanding dirt horses as Sound True and White Fugue. He has drawn in the middle of the field in post 4.
Ruggero, campaigned exclusively on turf so far, is intriguing on the surface switch. Victorious in a newcomers’ race at Niigata in July, he’s subsequently finished third at Nakayama and eighth in the Saudi Arabia Royal Cup (G3) in his latest at Tokyo. Note that top jockey Keita Tosaki sticks with Ruggero, who’s conditioned by 2008 Japan Cup (G1)-winning trainer Yuichi Shikato.
Mic Ben Hur, a rallying second in his unveiling at Nakayama in September, promptly broke his maiden next time out at the same venue. Both of those came at about 1 1/8 miles, so he’s shortening up here. Morito Yubu, sixth behind Mic Ben Hur, came back to score in a photo-finish at this course and distance in his fourth attempt. Bronze Kay also took four tries to post his first win, finally accomplishing that objective at Fukushima last time, and he gets the outside post 8 here. Apostle, by Beholder’s sire Henny Hughes, has dropped three straight since his successful debut at Mombetsu and now takes a significant class hike from that track to the major league of Tokyo. Rounding out the field is the maiden filly Lady of the Lake, up the track in all six of her turf starts and hoping for a turnaround on the dirt.