Thursday, December 3, 2009

Vodka earns career-defining victory in Japan Cup


Photo: 2008 Japanese Horse of the Year Vodka (inside) held off Oken Bruce Lee to win the Japan Cup (Jpn-G1) by a nose on Sunday.


With shortening strides in deep stretch on Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse, reigning Japanese Horse of the Year Vodka charged toward an elusive victory in the $5,471,264 Japan Cup (Jpn-G1), the country’s signature race.

The five-year-old Tanino Gimlet mare surged to a commanding lead in deep stretch and appeared destined to nail down a career-defining win, but such victories rarely are that easy, especially in a race that was a few hundred meters longer than Vodka’s best distance.

Oken Bruce Lee uncoiled an explosive rally from the outside and steadily inhaled Vodka’s advantage with ground-devouring strides as 98,811 fans roared in anticipation of a thrilling finish. Jockey Christophe Lemaire, riding Vodka for the first time, went to left-handed urging to make sure she saw her late-closing challenger and with one desperate, final surge she held on to win by the slimmest of margins.

“I knew that the last 100 meters was going to be the toughest and also acknowledged a strong charge coming from behind, so I gave her the whip and prayed her to hold on and she did—which proves what a fantastic mare she is,” Lemaire said.

Vodka, who in 2007 became the first filly in 64 years to win the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby), completed the 2,400-meter (11.93-furlong) race in 2:22.40 on firm turf to become the first Japanese-bred female to win the Japan Cup and stake her claim as the greatest racemare in Japanese history. Trained by Katsuhiko Sumii for owner Yuzo Tanimizu, she finished fourth in the 2007 Japan Cup at three and third last year, beaten by less than two lengths on both occasions.

“Though Vodka has won many Group 1 titles, the Japan Cup was special to me in that after having finished third and fourth in this truly international and prestigious race, somewhere in the back of my mind there was always this unfinished job we had to finish,” said Tanimizu, who will wait to determine if Vodka will remain in training. “Credit goes to my trainer and especially the stable staff that have put such hard work into making this happen.”

Classic winner Oken Bruce Lee deserved a better outcome after a visually impressive late charge, finishing 1 1/2 lengths clear of classic-winning three-year-old filly Red Desire. Two-time Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner Conduit (Ire), purchased to stand the 2010 breeding season at Big Red Farm in Japan, broke slowly and encountered traffic in the stretch of a fourth-place finish.

“He broke poorly; he didn’t respond as he usually does,” jockey Ryan Moore said of Conduit, who scored a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf on November 7. “He may have been tired not having enough time from his last start.”

Augustin Stable’s Grade 1 winner Just as Well finished a respectable seventh in the 18-horse field, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational Stakes (G1) winner Interpatation finished in a dead heat for 14th, and Grade 1 winner Marsh Side finished 17th. Screen Hero, winner of the 2008 Japan Cup, flattened out in the stretch and faded to 13th, but the day belonged to fan favorite Vodka.

Vodka earned $2,886,609 to boost her career bankroll to $13,102,306, passing Admire Moon, Zenno Rob Roy, Curlin, Makybe Diva, and Deep Impact to move to second on the list of the world’s all-time leading earners. She trails only T.M.Opera O ($16,200,337). Bred by Country Bokujo, Vodka is out of the Rousillon mare Tanino Sister. She has amassed ten wins in 25 starts, including a victory in the 2008 Tenno Sho (Autumn) (Jpn-G1) and back-to-back editions of the Yasuda Kinen (Jpn-G1) in ’08 and ‘09.

“It was a close race and I was left in suspense,” Sumii said of the long delay the stewards needed to confirm the winner in a close photo finish. “It was very moving for me, as well as the stable staff, to be able to share the glorious outcome in this race.”