Move over Zenyatta, Blame, Quality Road, and Lookin At Lucky. You may have company in the form of a Japanese invader.
Espoir City, a speedy 5-year-old horse by Japanese stallion Gold Allure, who was a son of Sunday Silence, is being pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) on Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs. The connections have had the plan in place since early this summer after Espoir City won his sixth consecutive race. Trainer Akio Adachi and jockey Tetsuzo Sato made a scouting trip to Churchill Downs in July to get a feel for the racetrack their star will be running at.
Considered the best dirt horse in Japan, Espoir City is a two-time group I winner, including the Japan Cup Dirt last year. He is two-for-two so far in 2010 and overall is 11-3-1 from 19 starts with earnings of more than $5.8 million. He will prep for the Classic in the Oct. 11 Mile Championship Nambu Hai in Japan, the same race he won by four lengths a year ago. A week later he will ship to Churchill to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup.
Espoir City is a front-running type horse, but has won from the stalking position, like he did in the February Stakes (click here for video). He won just one of his first seven starts on turf, but has become dominant after being switched to dirt, where he has lost just twice since August, 2008. Most of his races have come at eight or nine furlongs.
The Japanese will have a second Breeders’ Cup starter with Red Desire, who shipped to Aqueduct earlier this week for the Oct. 2 Flower Bowl (gr. IT) at Belmont. The 4-year-old filly, who has earned more than $3.5 million, will point toward the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). Her connections are completely different from Espoir City’s.
On Friday, Japanese Racing Association senior manager Yutaka Yokoyama took a few minutes with me to answer questions about Espoir City.
JS: Who are the owners of Espoir City?
YY: They are Yushun Horse Club. They are a large racing partnership, similar West Point Thoroughbreds in the United States. Yushun Horse Club recruited 500 members for him with $250 each.
JS: When did they start thinking about the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
YY: First, they considered the Dubai World Cup in March. But they gave up on that idea because Meydan has a synthetic racetrack, not traditional dirt. After that they thought about the Breeders’ Cup. Espoir City is the best dirt horse in Japan. They are eager to challenge the biggest international races.
JS: Espoir City likes to run on the lead, correct?
YY: Yes, he runs on the lead or just behind the leaders. He doesn’t have to have the lead. (For the Breeders’ Cup), he might take the lead or stay just behind Quality Road.
JS: He has never raced beyond nine furlongs. Is the added distance a concern for the team?
YY: I would say that is the biggest concern—the distance of the race. There are no 10-furlong group I races on dirt in Japan anymore. But his pedigree gives us hope. His sire won at that distance and his broodmare sire (Brian’s Time) was an American horse. I think he is suited for the race.
JS: The horse has also never shipped out of Japan. Is that a concern?
YY: Not really. We are more concerned with the distance of the race.
JS; What about the prospect of facing the best American horses at Churchill Downs?
YY: There is no competition for him over here, so we are looking forward to a great race like the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Two years ago we tried to make it with Casino Drive, so that was very disappointing for us.
JS: What are your thoughts on Zenyatta?
YY: She is a great horse. She has never lost. If the Breeders’ Cup Classic was held at Santa Anita again she would have another very good chance. With the race being on traditional dirt, I think other horses have a better chance to win.
JS: What about Red Desire? Are you hopeful of her chances?
YY: We are very excited. She was third in the Japan Cup last year as a 3-year-old. I think she has a much better chance to win in the United States because of that. And as you know, she has already shipped well. She won in Dubai (in the Al Maktoum Challenge-Round 3 in March).
JS: Would you say you are more confident in Red Desire than Espoir City?
YY: I personally am more confident in her.
JS: As far as Espoir City, does he need to win his Oct. 11 prep race in order for the connections to continue with their Breeders’ Cup plan?
YY: I would say he needs to run well. If he placed second or third I think that would be fine for them to proceed with their plan. If he placed 10th or 11th I think they would reconsider.