Held over 1,600 meters (a metric mile) at Tokyo Racecourse, the Unicorn (G3) ranks among Japan’s most significant dirt races for 3-year-olds. Inaugurated in 1996, the Unicorn serves as a steppingstone toward the 2,000-meter Japan Dirt Derby at Oi Racecourse, a Group 1 test on Japan’s National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit.
Contested annually in June, the Unicorn’s prominent position on the summer calendar has allowed the race to attract some of Japan’s finest horses. Taiki Shuttle helped boost the Unicorn’s early stature by parlaying victory in the 1997 Unicorn into triumphs in five Group 1 turf races, including back-to-back editions of the Mile Championship (G1). A few years later, Agnes Digital claimed the 2000 Unicorn on his way to winning half a dozen Group 1 races on dirt and turf.
Recent years have seen the Unicorn crank out high-profile winners on a regular basis. Between 2015 and 2019, five straight Unicorn winners (Nonkono Yume, Gold Dream, Sunrise Nova, Le Vente Se Leve, and Wide Pharoah) went on to claim national and/or international Group 1 races in Japan. Even greater success could be on the horizon for Cafe Pharoah, who dominated the 2020 Unicorn by five lengths in the stakes-record time of 1:34.90.
While the Unicorn has never previously produced a Kentucky Derby starter—its date in June has made this impossible—the postponement of the 2020 Kentucky Derby due to COVID-19 could change the picture. Schedule shifts have allowed the Unicorn to join the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, awarding qualification points to the top four finishers on a 40-16-8-4 basis. Should a Unicorn winner the caliber of Taiki Shuttle or Agnes Digital make the trip to Churchill Downs, horsemen and handicappers alike will be advised to sit up and take notice.
by J. Keeler Johnson