By Ray Paulick
TOKYO, Japan–Mirco Demuro had just been punk'd by, of all people, Sir Michael Stoute, and he looked like a deer caught in the headlights.
An Australian journalist wanted to introduce Demuro to the legendary British trainer during the cocktail hour of Friday night's Welcome Party to the 29th annual Japan Cup. Demuro, Italy's top jockey and last year's Japan Cup winner aboard Screen Hero for Teruya Yoshida, said he'd never had the opportunity to meet Stoute, who will be saddling two-time Breeders' Cup Turf winner Conduit in Sunday's big event at Tokyo race course.
“Actually you rode for me once at Royal Ascot,” Stoute reminded Demuro (both pictured, left). “Finished second.” Then, with a perfectly timed pause, added, “Moved too soon.” No one enjoyed the good-natured ribbing better than Stoute himself, who let out a big belly laugh at his own joke. Demuro didn't know what to say. But perhaps he'll have the last laugh on Sunday as he tries to defend his Japan Cup title aboard Screen Hero.
Stoute is relaxed and confident as he bids for his third Japan Cup victory, having won back-to-back runnings with Singspiel and Pilsudski in 1996 and '97. The native of Barbados, who has been among the world's foremost horsemen for more than three decades, has won major races in 10 countries, including five Breeders' Cups.
I asked which of his international triumphs meant the most to him. “The Dubai World Cup,” Stoute said, without hesitation. “And for that I give a great deal of credit to Jerry Bailey.”
Stoute recalled how the Hall of Fame jockey worked Singspiel before the scheduled running of the 1997 World Cup but returned to the United States when the race was postponed after a deluge flooded the Nad al Sheba racetrack. “He came all the way back a few days later when the race was rescheduled,” Stoute said. “I think that breeze really gave him confidence in the horse.”
Another international visitor to Tokyo commented that Stoute has perfected the art of shipping horses around the world to win big races. “No, no, no,” he said. “No one's perfected this. But you learn from the mistakes you make and from the things that go right. And no two horses react the same way to travel.”
Among other things, Stoute sends his own horse feed to Japan, well in advance of his horse, allowing the Japan Racing Association plenty of time to test its contents for any prohibited substances. Many other trainers are content to use the feed provided by the JRA. It's a small detail perhaps, but it's the kind of thing that adds up and pays off in the end.
I MADE THE MISTAKE OF ASKING PATRICK LAWLEY-WAKELIN whether he'd been to the Japan Cup previously. “Last year,” he said, sadly, “but this is as far as we got.” Lawley-Wakelin, who is representing 2008 Canadian International winner Marsh Side on behalf of owner Robert Evans, was referring to last year's Welcome Party, which he attended with trainer Neil Drysdale (pictured, left, with Northern Farm's Katsumi Yoshida). The next day, Marsh Side was scratched from the Japan Cup due to a fever, and Drysdale and Lawley-Wakelin departed immediately for the Tattersalls December sale. Let's hope they get a chance to stick around and see Marsh Side compete this year.
Drysdale was stunned to hear no American-trained horse had won the Japan Cup since Golden Pheasant captured the 1991 renewal for trainer Charlie Whittingham and jockey Gary Stevens.
“I should have won it in 2002,” said Drysdale, recalling the running held at Nakayama racecourse while the Tokyo track's grandstand was being rebuilt. Italian-based Falbrav and jockey Frankie Dettori edged the Drysdale-trained Sarafan and survived an inquiry after Falbrav drifted in and brushed Sarafan several times in deep stretch. “He really slammed us,” Drysdale recalled, “but the stewards let the result stand. There was no point in an appeal, since the same officials who looked at the original inquiry would hear the case.”
THE WELCOME PARTY TOOK PLACE at the glitzy Ritz Carlton Hotel in the new midtown development adjacent to Roppongi. The JRA upgraded its host hotel this year to provide owners, trainers and jockeys a better experience during their visit to Tokyo (the international press remains at the Keio Plaza, a fine business hotel but not in the same class as the Ritz). It's a smart move by the JRA, which has to compete with the Hong Kong Jockey Club for top horses and has lagged a step or two behind the HKJC as a host association and in providing a world-class experience for owners. Connections of Japan Cup Dirt horses will be staying at the Ritz Carlton in Osaka, near Hanshin race course, prior to next Sunday's race.
The entertainment at this year's party was quite different than anything I've seen in my previous 15 journeys to Tokyo for the Japan Cup. A group of Yabusame (yah-bu-sahmee) archers gave a demonstration of their martial arts skills, which entail riding on horseback at full speed and shooting a bow and arrow and several small targets. It's a Japanese tradition going back nearly a thousand years to the days of Samurai warriors when the targets were more than wooden squares, and the skill was required to help protect the empire.
Of course, the originators of Yabusame never envisioned riding their horse into the Ritz Carlton ballroom, so some accommodations had to be made. The “horses” were decorated wooden mounts spun in a circle by an assistant, and the targets were only a few steps away on stage. But I think we got the point: don't mess around with these fellows.
IT'S BECOME SOMETHING OF A PAULICK REPORT TRADITION to comment on the food we enjoy at various industry gatherings, and the Japan Cup Welcome Party certainly offered a veritable feast, beginning with something called amuse bouche, contuing with a second course of ravioli style shogoin turnip, marinated seafood, crispy pasta, shiso and citrus fruit vinaigrette; followed by pan-friend sea bream, leak, taraba crab, clam sauce, braised savoy cabbage and green vegetable; and then a main course of pot-au-feu style beef fillet, chicken leg, autumn vegetables, truffle flavor white wasabi and seaweed salt. My favorite, though, was the “seasonal dessert sampler” of chestnut, sweet potato, Mont blanc, autumn fruits, apricot sorbet, wasonbon, and green tea sauce. I couldn't really identify any of it, but it was all good!
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