Mizuki Noda's 5-year-old Mikki Rocket (JPN), at odds of 13-1, held off former Hong Kong Horse of the Year, Werther (NZ), by a neck to win Sunday's 59th running of the 1 3/8-mile, $2,955,000 Takarazuka Kinen (G1) at Hanshin Racecourse and earned an automatic berth into the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) through the international Breeders' Cup Challenge.
The Breeders' Cup Challenge is an international series of 82 stakes races, whose winners receive automatic starting positons and fees paid into a corresponding race of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, which will be held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, Nov. 2-3.
As a part of the benefits of the Challenge series, the Breeders' Cup will pay the entry fees for Mikki Rocket to start in the Breeders' Cup Turf at 1 ½ miles. Breeders' Cup will also provide a $40,000 travel allowance for all starters based outside of North America to compete in the World Championships.
Mikki Rocket, trained by Hidetaka Otonashi and ridden by Ryuji Wada, earned his first Group 1 and broke a nine-race losing streak in scoring his biggest career win in the 16-horse Takarazuka Kinen field before 65,800 in attendance at Hanshin. The win marked trainer Hidetaka Otonashi's ninth JRA-G1 victory, and for Wada, it was his eighth JRA-G1 title, and his first in 17 years since the 2001 Tenno Sho (Spring) with T.M. Opera O.
A bay son of King Kamehameha (JPN) out of Moneycantbuymelove (IRE) by Pivotal (GB), Mikki Rocket came into the race off a solid fourth-place finish in the 2-mile Tenno Sho (G1) on April 29 at Kyoto, just beaten a length for it all.
In the Takarazuka Kinen, Mikki Rocket was quick out of the gate from post 4, settled in mid-division, about seventh from the front. He gradually made headway saving ground along the rail in the backstretch, turned the last two corners second to third from the front and pulled ahead entering the lane as the 3.9-1 favorite Satono Diamond (JPN) also surged out from the outside. Outrunning Satono Diamond 200 meters out after a brief duel in the early stretch, Mikki Rocket accelerated strongly while managing to fend off the powerful challenge by Werther for a neck victory in front
In winning his fifth career race in 22 starts, Mikki Rocket covered the 1 3/8 miles in 2:11.06 over a course listed as good.
“Mikki Rocket was in great shape after a good fourth in the Tenno Sho (Spring) and in training towards this race so I was secretly thinking that maybe it was time that he deserved to be a G1 winner—I am relieved and happy,” said Otonashi. “He has overcome his bad habit of missing his break which gives him a better chance in the race, and his position in the race was up to my rider to decide as he knows the horse well—he does have a tendency to lean to the inside so maybe that was the reason Wada let him hug the rails and nicely covered early in the race. I just prayed that he'd make it to the finish as Werther came strongly from behind.”
“I was determined to choose a nice firm route as the turf dried off after the rainy weather and we were lucky to take hold of a nice position from a smooth break today,” said Wada, the winning rider. “The race was running at a solid pace but we were planning to go for a long spurt from early stretch so I kept him race reserved, not too close but at a striking distance, during the trip. I wasn't aware of Werther coming from behind me but I was awed by my horse's ability to maintain his speed all the way to the wire,”
Johnson Chen's 2015-2016 Hong Kong Horse of the Year Werther, a 6-year-old son of Tavistock (NZ), broke smoothly from post 13 under Hugh Bowman at 14.9-1, and was rated well off the pace, sixth from the rear, one off the rail. He advanced gradually rounding the third corner while tracking behind the mare Vivlos (JPN) and defending champion Satono Crown (JPN) along the outside. Werther then turned in a terrific turn of speed to rapidly close the gap and caused a serious threat to the eventual winner who drew away from early stretch, just missing by a neck for second.
“With a better draw, I reckon we could have won,” said Werther's trainer John Moore. “He lost a lot of weight but he was all heart. He knows where the winning post is and considering he was racing with the weight loss, he still showed a lot of internal fortitude to hit that line—Hugh said that at the corner when he hit that straight, he thought he was going to win but the winner just kept grinding to the line. But from a Hong Kong point of view, I think we've shown how good our best stayer is.”
“Although we couldn't win, I couldn't be happier with the horse's performance,” said Bowman. At the top of the straight, I thought we had him covered, had a beautiful running transit. He enjoyed the genuine speed here in Japan and, to be honest, if he didn't have the set-back earlier in the year and had the time to prepare for this from the start, he would have won.”
Twelfth favorite Noble Mars (JPN) hugged the rails behind Mikki Rocket, around ninth from the front. The son of Jungle Pocket (JPN) chased the eventual winner up to the wire, overtaking the race favorite along the way but succumbing to Werther in the last 100 meters to finish three lengths behind to finish third, followed by Vivlos (JPN), the 2017 Dubai Turf (G1) winner in fourth. Danburite (JPN) finished fifth and then Satono Crown in sixth.
The Takarazuka Kinen was the fourth Breeders' Cup Challenge race in the Longines Turf Division this year. On Wednesday, the 5-year-old Poet's Word (IRE) became the third horse to earn an automatic berth into the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf by winning the Prince of Wales's Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot in England. The first two horses to qualify were the filly La Extrana Dama (ARG), who won the Gran Premio 25 de Mayo (G1) at San Isidro in Buenos Aires on May 25, and Quarteto de Cordas (BRZ), who captured the Grande Premio Brasil (G1) at Gavea in Rio de Janeiro on June 10.
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