OSAKA, Japan—Trainer Jim Bond had only arrived a little more than 12 hours earlier when he faced the Japanese press for the first time on Thursday morning at Hanshin race course near Osaka to talk about Tizway, the 4-year-old son of Tiznow he'll be saddling for William Clifton in Sunday's Japan Cup Dirt.
One of the questions of Bond and Clifton had to do with a preferred post position. “Seven, is my lucky number,” said Bond, James Bond, though I'm not sure the Japanese press quite understood his reference to the 007 character, especially after the translation.
A few hours later, when post positions were drawn, guess what happened? Tizway ended up in post position seven for the $3-million race.
Bond and Clifton (pictured, left, during the press conference) will need plenty of luck, and even that might not be enough, when Tizway takes on a field of 15 Japanese runners in the nine-furlong race run on the clockwise track at Hanshin. Only one of the 24 previous runners from outside of Japan has won the race, and that was on the counterclockwise Tokyo race course, where the Japan Cup Dirt had been run from 2000-'07. The lone non-Japanese winner was Fleetstreet Dancer, trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden to victory by Jon Court, in the 2003 renewal, held on a racetrack tightened up considerably by heavy rain. This year's running is expected to be on a dry track, and that's bad news for horses who have not competed here, since running on a Japanese dirt track is like running on the dry portion of a sandy beach: it's very deep and very tiring.
Tizway is far from being the most accomplished American horse to compete here. Among those who have failed to hit the board in previous years are major stakes winners Lido Palace, Lava Man, Student Council and Frost Giant. Tizway has never finished better than third in a stakes race, that coming in his last start, when beaten 5 1/2 lengths by Summer Bird in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Summer Bird came to Japan and suffered a hairline fracture while training and has been shipped home where he will require surgery.
Tizway's career has two distinct chapters. In the first, beginning in November 2007 and running through June 2008, it took him six races to break his maiden, that finally coming at Woodbine on the Polytrack. After that win, he was sidelined for nearly a year, Bond said, to recover from soundness problems that were never specifically identified. He speculated on Thursday that Tizway might had some bruising in the area where the cannon bone connects to the ankle. “That kind of thing can happen on Polytrack,” he said. “We had five vets look at him and nothing ever came up on X rays. So we sent him to the farm and gave him plenty of time.”
The time off helped. Tizway came back with a strong allowance victory at Aqueduct in April, finished second in another allowance in late May and then romped by 7 1/2 lengths over 2008 Belmont Stakes winner Da' Tara in July. Bond jumped him from there to the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga, where he finished fourth of six runners behind Bullsbay, then third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Any thoughts of going in the Breeders' Cup Classic were thwarted by a fever.
The local horses are far from being chumps. Espoir City is considered by some to be the strongest of the home team, but then there's the veteran Vermilion, who finished fourth in the 2006 Japan Cup Dirt, won it in 2007 and finished third last year. The 7-year-old son of El Condor Pasa set a JRA record by winning eight Grade 1 races during his career. He will be ridden by the 40-year-old champion jockey Yutaka Take, who is coming off a stinging disappointment when booted off race favorite Vodka in the Japan Cup. French jockey Christophe Lemaire was given the mount and rode Vodka perfectly to win by a nose.
SPEAKING OF YUTAKA TAKE, I had the opportunity to speak with him at Thursday evening's Welcome Party for the Japan Cup Dirt and this weekend's World Super Jockeys Series, which is being held for the 23rd consecutive year. (Click here to see details of the event.)
Take holds virtually all Japanese riding records, including career wins, money won, and victories in a single season. He's been riding 22 years and has been leading jockey on 16 occasions. He burst onto the scene when Japanese racing was becoming extremely popular, and his appeal, good looks and charisma are credited for a significant part of the sport's growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But now Take is a 40-year-old veteran, and the competition is nipping at his heels. He told me that he plans to ride at least until he's 50 and believes he has many good years ahead of him. “My experience has made me a better rider than I was in my younger days,” he said in an interview that was part English and partly through a Japanese interpreter. “ I don't feel as though my physical skills have declined at all. Of course I hope to be able to stay on top. I also want to try California again.”
Take had previously spent a block of time in California but without much success. His attempt to showcase his skills to California horsemen and racing fans came at a time when speed was king on the dirt tracks there, and Take's style in Japan had always been more patient, come-from-behind to win. I think he would be much more successful now, with the synthetic tracks putting more of a premium on horses coming from off the pace.
CALVIN BOREL AND GARRETT GOMEZ will be representing the United States in this weekend's World Super Jockeys Series. Both were on hand at the Welcome Party and took turns dipping into the sushi trough.
“I love sushi!” Borel told a group of inquiring Japanese racing journalists, though he shied away from chopsticks, attacking the raw fish with a fork instead. To their credit, the writers were more interested in learning about Rachel Alexandra, the super filly he rode to eight straight victories in 2009, including three over male competition.
“What makes her so special?” one of them asked.
“Her stride,” the Louisiana native said. “She has an incredible stride, longer than any other horse I've ever ridden. They say that only Secretariat had a stride as long as Rachel Alexandra.”
Another asked if Borel was sorry that Rachel Alexandra never faced Zenyatta, who beat colts in the Breeders' Cup Classic and is in a tight race with her for Horse of the Year. “Or course I'm disappointed,” he admitted, but said he agreed with owner Jess Jackson not to run on the synthetic track in California. He said he looks forward to being reunited with the filly at the Fair Grounds, which Borel described as one of the fairest tracks in America, and wishes the two super fillies could somehow meet there.
This was Borel's “first time out of the lower 48,” as his wife, Lisa, put it, and the two of them plan to soak it all in. They'll have something to put in their scrapbook, along with two Kentucky Derby victories, and a state dinner at the White House honoring England's Queen Elizabeth. (And, unlike some recent White House dinner guests, Calvin and Lisa received official invitations.)
Gomez came to Japan last year but left disappointed when the Bobby Frankel-trained Mast Track was scratched from the Japan Cup Dirt with a foot injury. He's got a busy weekend ahead of him, riding six horses on Saturday, including two in the jockeys' competition, and more on Sunday. Gomez said he loves the Japanese culture and would be very interested in riding in Japan on a short-term basis, something Kent Desormeaux has done in the past, as have a number of European jockeys, including Lemaire and Olivier Peslier. With the JRA opening up ownership licensing to foreigners, the opportunities for someone like Gomez may be greatly expanded.
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