Time to Smile in the Japan Cup

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

On this quiet weekend of racing in North America, we'll turn our attention internationally to focus on the November 24 Japan Cup (G1) at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan, unquestionably the most prestigious race taking place anywhere in the world this week.

With a purse in excess of $5.6 million, the 2,400-meter Japan Cup rates as one of the richest races around the globe. But despite the size of the prize, not a single international challenger will start in the 2019 Japan Cup, leaving 15 talented locals to vie for victory.

It's a testament to the durability of Japanese Thoroughbreds (and to the racing-centric nature of the sport in Japan) that three winners of the Group 1 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) will start in the Japan Cup. They are #14 Makahiki (2016), #8 Rey de Oro (2017), and #2 Wagnerian (2018), and since they all scored their signature victories over the same course and distance as the Japan Cup, it's logical to conclude they'll be among the major players on Sunday.

On the other hand, all three are winless in 2019, raising questions about their current form. Rey de Oro, who finished second in the 2017 Japan Cup, probably rates the best chance after finishing fourth in the 2,200-meter All Comers Stakes (G2) on September 22, his first start since June. But he was out-kicked down the lane and will need to show significant improvement to challenge in the Japan Cup.

#5 Suave Richard, runner-up behind Rey de Oro in the 2017 Tokyo Yushun, is likewise riding a lengthy losing streak. But this four-time group stakes winner did finish third in the 2018 Japan Cup and hasn't been disgraced in three starts this season, most recently missing second place by just 2 ¼ lengths when finishing seventh off a layoff in the 2,000-meter Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). A better performance should be in the offing on Sunday, though an in-the-money finish might be the best Suave Richard can hope for.

Then there's #11 Cheval Grand, an aging seven-year-old who sprung a 13-1 upset over Rey de Oro in the 2017 Japan Cup. The son of Heart's Cry hasn't returned to the winner's circle since then, though his recent form might be better than it appears. He's been campaigning internationally this season and kicked off 2019 with a runner-up effort in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) at Meydan, where he finished ahead of Rey de Oro and Group 1 winners Magic Wand and Desert Encounter, among others.

Cheval Grand subsequently finished off the board in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1) and Juddmonter International Stakes (G1) in England, where the softer ground didn't really suit his chances. The return to Japan should trigger an improved performance from Cheval Grand, who has never finished out of the superfecta at Tokyo. In addition to his victory in the 2017 Japan Cup, he finished third in the 2016 edition and fourth in 2018.

But the Japan Cup hasn't been won by a horse aged six or older since 2003. The high-class, competitive nature of the race means it's typically won by younger runners at the peak of their powers. And in my opinion, #4 You Can Smile fits the profile of an improving horse ready for a career-best effort on Sunday.

A four-year-old son of King Kamehameha, already renowned as the sire of Rey de Oro and 2010 Japan Cup winner Rose Kingdom, You Can Smile has shown the stamina to win over 3,400 meters and placed third in the 2018 Kikuka Sho (G1, Japanese St. Leger) traveling 3,000 meters.

But You Can Smile has been just as effective running shorter. Two starts back, in his first start off a layoff, You Can Smile unleashed a powerful late rally to win the 2,000-meter Niigata Kinen (G3) by a neck in 1:57.50 seconds. The timer revealed You Can Smile sprinted the final 600 meters in an excellent :33.60 seconds.

You Can Smile subsequently took a big step up in class for the 2,000-meter Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) at Tokyo Racecourse, and while he was no match for superstar Almond Eye, he clocked the final 600 meters in :33.70 (faster than anyone in the field) to finish fourth, beaten two necks for second place. While recording a personal final time of 1:56.80, You Can Smile finished ahead of Wagnerian, Suave Richard, and Makahiki.

This was a deceptively strong effort from You Can Smile, who should only improve while stretching out over 2,400 meters in the Japan Cup. Three-time Japan Cup-winning jockey Yasunari Iwata has the mount for trainer Yasuo Tomomichi, who also conditions Cheval Grand, Wagnerian, Makahiki, and longshot #13 Etario.

In a race full of heralded veterans who might be past their peak, You Can Smile's rising trajectory is appealing.  He figures to start at a solid price in the wagering and is my choice to win.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Japan Cup?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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