Werther may not have returned to his original home of New Zealand, but trainer John Moore believes the similarities between the land of the long white cloud and his current Japanese environment may prove an asset when the champion stayer tackles the Takarazuka Kinen (2200m) at Hanshin Racecourse on Sunday (24 June).
Moore appeared at Hanshin this morning (Friday, 22 June), having arrived in Osaka yesterday, and observed that Werther was lighter than usual. Early bodyweight measurements released by the Japan Racing Association (JRA) had the six-year-old tipping the scales at 454kg (1000lb), down considerably from the 474kg (1046lb) he weighed when he ran in the G3 Lion Rock Trophy (1600m) earlier this month.
However, Moore's first glimpse of Werther also filled him with confidence that the Tavistock gelding is ready for his tough assignment against many of Japan's premier middle-distance gallopers.
“Obviously I've only just arrived in the country so I'm only getting my first look at him this morning,” Moore said. “He is light but I'm not worried at all, I expected him to lose some weight from that last run both because he was first-up in a while and because he's travelling.
“Horses will always lose weight when they travel, unless we give them plenty of time to acquaint themselves with their destination. Instead of the figure on the scale, I'm using my eyes and his colour and his coat tell me that he's very fit and healthy, he has a good sheen to his coat and he's dappled which is a very good sign.
“I still remember him from the Queensland Derby, which was his last run down under before we bought him,” he continued. “He was skinny as anything, there was not much to him, but he still gave everything. He's not like some of the Japanese horses that are big, tall, robust types; this is the typical New Zealand staying type. From what I'm seeing, I think he's got a very good chance to win on Sunday.”
Moore, a noted traveller of horses worldwide, has been an infrequent visitor to Japan; he has not been represented in the country since Joyful Winner (ninth) and Able One (12th) ran in the 2007 Yasuda Kinen. However, the 68-year-old says that he is happy with the experience so far, particularly finding it helpful with Werther.
“It is my first trip to Osaka as a trainer and everything has gone well so far, it's been a no-incident trip,” Moore said. “The quarantine facility at Miki (Land Horse Park) was very good, my wife tells me it is one of the best in which we've had horses stabled, and he would have thought he was back in New Zealand there – he had the opportunity to go out and pick grass, so he was back to his original lifestyle from New Zealand.
“That seems to have sparked him up mentally. He was pulling us out of the box to get to the grass and he really loved it. The weather has been very similar to New Zealand too, a bit warmer but pretty wet so he could just be back in Wellington.
“That familiarity could prove crucial,” he continued. “You want a horse to feel in his comfort zone and while he is out of his familiar surroundings from Hong Kong, there's still enough to make him feel comfortable. While he is in a different habitat, I'm trying to keep as much the same as possible in terms of how I train him. In fact, there aren't too many changes overall – for example, the feed is exactly the same as Hong Kong, so there aren't too many differences.”
One difference between Hong Kong and Japan comes in relation to the headgear Werther will wear on race day, with connections able to make a last-minute call on whether the gelding will sport cheekpieces in the race – that decision can be made as late as when the Takarazuka Kinen runners are parading behind the stalls
“In Japan, the rules state that he can wear the cheekpieces around to the starting gates and then the jockey has the chance to remove them if they choose,” Moore said. “I talked to Hugh Bowman on a couple of occasions about what we would do with the gear: whether we would go to the blinkers, whether we would use no attachments at all or whether there was another option.
“The conclusion was, he would wear the cheekpieces around to the start and if Hugh feels the horse, going around to the start, is a little too fierce and too much on the chewy-chewy, then he will take them off. That was why we tried him in the cheekpieces in the gallop yesterday, to give him some experience in them and to make sure he was happy with them, and Romain (work rider) said he worked very well in them.”
Werther drew gate 13 in the 16-horse field at yesterday's barrier draw, but Moore doesn't believe the wide berth is much of an issue, particularly with almost 600 metres to the first turn.
“I walked part of the track today,” he said. “The 2200m start is right down the end and I don't see any difficulty with the gate, the 13 doesn't worry me from up there. And to have the services of Hugh Bowman is a major asset, he's already won the Japan Cup, he knows the riding styles of the local jockeys, the tempos of these races, so I'll leave it in his capable hands to find the best position. He's the number one jockey in the world, so I'm very fortunate to have him riding for me.”
For now, Moore is doing a rain dance – literally. With a wet weekend forecast in Osaka, the trainer was given an umbrella by the Japanese press for a photo opportunity and took full advantage, producing his best impersonation of Gene Kelly in Singin' In The Rain as he hoped for a soft surface for Werther.
“The weather report is rain on the weekend and I couldn't be happier,” said Moore. “He loves wet tracks. He is a much better horse with cut in the ground. We saw him win the QEII on a rain-affected track, he won by four and a half lengths and he beat the reigning Takarazuka Kinen winner (Lovely Day), who was the favourite, that day too!
“He is fine on a firm track, but he excels with a bit of cushion. Others don't handle it, while he improves, so it is obviously ideal for us. When I walked it this morning, I could tell it had already firmed up noticeably so hopefully the rain arrives in the hour before the race.”
Werther cantered two laps of the Hanshin turf on Friday morning, with Moore saying that the bay would have a light morning on Saturday ahead of Sunday's 325 million yen (US$2,957,500) feature.
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