Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby: 5 horses to follow

Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby: 5 horses to follow
Photo: Cake6

The Japan Road to the 2021 Kentucky Derby continues with Wednesday’s Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, which — roughly translated — is the race for “the most talented 2-year-old racehorses in all of Japan.”

The title is a fitting description for the 1,600-meter race (post time 6:10 a.m. ET), which is contested over the sandy 1,200-meter bullring racecourse at Kawasaki. Racehorses in Japan compete in two distinct divisions, governed by separate authorities. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) circuit includes the biggest tracks and the best horses, while the National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit consists of lower-level dirt racing.

For the most part, JRA and NAR horses never face off, but in some high-profile races they intermingle. The Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun — a Group 1 on the NAR circuit — marks such an occasion. The 2020 edition has drawn a field of 14, including five runners representing the JRA.

Because the JRA runners are the most likely to pursue qualification on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, let’s review the five JRA representatives seeking to claim the 20 Kentucky Derby qualification points at stake for the winner:

#2 Dualist: Three starts, three victories. So far, no one has figured out how to beat Dualist, who races in the famous silks of Sunday Racing.

Trained by Takayuki Yasuda, who recently won the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) with Danon Smash, Dualist showed excellent front-running speed to win his first two starts sprinting on the JRA circuit. Transitioning to NAR proved to be no obstacle either as Dualist prevailed by half a length in the 1,400-meter Hyogo Junior Grand Prix (G2) at Sonoda.

The only question now is whether Dualist can handle 1,600 meters, because in terms of established talent and accomplishments, he looms as the runner to beat.

#4 Taisei Again: A son of Grade 1 winner and 2008 Kentucky Derby starter Pyro, Taisei Again showed plenty of promise in his first two starts. After scoring an eight-length debut win over 1,800 meters at Chukyo, Taisei Again cut back to 1,600 meters and parlayed pace-tracking tactics into victory in Tokyo’s Platanus Sho.

But Taisei Again completely misfired in his first start on the NAR circuit, finishing 13th of 14 in the JBC Nisai Yushun (G3) racing 1,800 meters at Mombetsu. Perhaps he didn’t care for the sloppy track, or perhaps he struggled racing clockwise for the first time — he’ll return to a counterclockwise configuration for the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun. In either case, a rebound could be in the offing on Wednesday, and a return to the form of his Platanus Sho triumph would make Taisei Again a dangerous contender.

#5 Rastrillo: Much like Taisei Again, the filly Rastrillo displayed talent in her first two starts on the JRA circuit, scoring upset victories racing 1,200 meters on both dirt and turf. But when Rastrillo encountered a muddy track for the 1,200-meter Edelweiss Sho (G3) at Mombetsu, she faltered to finish a distant fourth.

From a pedigree perspective, Rastrillo should handle longer distances just fine — her sire, Agnes Digital, won the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) and Hong Kong Cup (G1) racing 2,000 meters. But stepping up from 1,200 meters to 1,600 meters is still a stiff challenge.

#6 Luce d’Oro: A seven-length debut winner dashing 1,000 meters over a sloppy track at Hakodate, Luce d’Oro reiterated his potential when battling to a close runner-up effort in the 1,200-meter Hakodate Nisai (G3) on turf.

But Luce d’Oro’s subsequent efforts on the NAR circuit have been less inspiring. He didn’t finish much better than Taisei Again when beaten to 10th in the JBC Nisai Yushun (G3), after which he improved only marginally to finish 10 1/2 lengths behind Dualist in the Hyogo Junior Grand Prix (G2). It appears shorter distance might be Luce d’Oro’s true forte, making the 1,600-meter journey of the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun a question mark.

#13 Bakushin: Although Bakushin was beaten in his first four starts sprinting 1,200 meters or less, he did finish second three times, showing potential if not a winning tendency.

On the bright side, Bakushin took a big step forward when stretching out for a pair of 1,400-meter events at Tokyo Racecourse. First he obliterated a field of maidens by 10 lengths, sprinting the final 600 meters in a quick :36.10. Then he came back to trounce the Oxalis Sho, finishing in :36.80 to beat dominant debut winner Sea of Dreams by two lengths.

A son of Henny Hughes out of a mare by Sunday Silence, Bakushin is slowly developing into a promising prospect. We’ll just have to see if he can successfully step up in class and distance again while breaking from an outside post.

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