The big action continues at Tokyo Racecourse with the running of the Tokyo Yushun - more commonly known as the Derby, the Japanese Derby - taking place on Sunday, May 28. It is the second race in the series of three known as the Triple Crown. And with Sol Oriens, the winner of the Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas), the series' first race, expected to be in the gate Sunday, the second jewel in his crown is on the line.
This year marks the 90th year of the Japanese Derby. Held over what is called the "classic distance" of 2,400 meters, the Derby is the pinnacle for 3-year-old colts and fillies. Of the thousands of thoroughbreds born each year (over 7,700 were born in 2020, the birth year of this year's Derby hopefuls), only 18 will have a chance at this once-in-a-lifetime event. Nineteen colts have been nominated to participate for a share of the purse of nearly 650 million yen and a shot at the first-place prize of 300 million yen. Eighteen of those colts should enter the gate at 15:40 on Sunday and test their mettle against many others they will compete against for the first time.
Racehorses participating in JRA events must be stabled (at least for a period prior to a race) at either one of the two training centers, Ritto in Shiga Prefecture in the west and Miho in Ibaraki Prefecture in the east. The past five Japanese Derby winners have all hailed from Ritto. This year, for the first time in 34 years, Miho horses outnumber those from Ritto. And, more noteworthy, three of the four expected to be the top choices - Sol Oriens, Skilfing, Phantom Thief, and Tastiera - hail from the Miho Training Center.
Tokyo Racecourse, located in western Tokyo's town of Fuchu, is considered to be one of the fairest, yet the toughest of the JRA tracks. The Tokyo 2,400, which ends after a grueling upward slope down the longest homestretch in Japan, is above all, a true test of overall ability. To land the Derby you have to be fast and you have to be good. And, as all Japanese horsemen will tell you, you also have to be lucky.
Here's a look at some of the expected popular Derby choices.
Sol Oriens : With only three starts to his name, Sol Oriens, a son of seven-time G1 champion Kitasan Black, remains unbeaten. After a debut over the Tokyo 1,800 meters, he leapt to a Grade 3 win over the Nakayama 2,000 meters, then claimed the Satsuki Sho at the same venue and distance. In the latter, he also prevailed despite the heavy going. A versatile runner, Sol Oriens, which is Latin for "Rising Sun," has been successful racing close to the pace, as well as far off it. If he can win on Sunday, he will become the 20th horse in the Derby's history to do so unbeaten. Expected up will be Takeshi Yokoyama, who has ridden Sol Oriens' last two starts. The youngest of the three Yokoyamas expected to have rides in the Derby (father Norihiro on Top Knife, brother Kazuo on Bellagio Opera), the 23-year-old Takeshi will have his second chance to pilot an unbeaten Satsuki Sho champion in the Derby. In 2021, he failed to bring the unbeaten Efforia home a winner, missing first place by a mere nose. There is something more than a Derby win on the line for trainer Takahisa Tezuka as well. If he can win the Derby, a feat that has eluded him in his previous three attempts, Tezuka will become the fifth trainer in Japanese racing history and the first in 61 years to capture the five competitions for 3-year-olds known as the "classic races."
Skilfing : Being seen as perhaps the biggest threat to Sol Oriens is Skilfing, whose name hails from Norse mythology. Another name for the powerful god Odin, Skilfing means "the shaker" and this colt shares with Sol Oriens, Kitasan Black as his sire. Hailing from the Miho barn of Tetsuya Kimura, Skilfing has only been raced at Tokyo. Second in his debut, he is on a three-way winning streak, his most recent race the Derby trial Aoba Sho, a Grade 2 run this year on April 29 and Skilfing's second win over the Tokyo 2,400. Chronically slow away, his late speed has stood him well. Most likely the heaviest colt in the lineup on raceday, Skilfing's weight has remained a steady 524kg for all his starts. The big question is whether he can shake off the jinx that "no Aoba Sho winner has ever won the Derby."
Tastiera : Runnerup in the Satsuki Sho, this son of new stallion Satono Crown (third in the 2015 Derby) has only missed the top three once in his four starts to date. From a winning debut at Tokyo, Tastiera stepped into graded competition to finish fourth in the Grade 3 Kyodo News Hai (Tokyo, 1,800m), followed by a tight turnaround and a win of the Grade 2 Yayoi Sho (Nakayama, 2,000m). The following month he finished 1 1/4 lengths in second behind Sol Oriens in the Satsuki Sho over the Nakayama 2,000m. Hailing from the Miho stable of Noriyuki Hori, Tastiera will have the home advantage and his keen racing sense should serve him over the extra distance (his longest by 2 furlongs). If he can win it, Tastiera will become the first first-crop runner in 14 years (since Logi Universe) to win the Derby. Despite already having had three different riders in four starts, Tastiera is looking at yet another new partner - Damian Lane. Lane has been riding morning work, and though it's not due to difficulty as much as it is the changing nature of Japanese racing, if he were to win, Lane would become only the first jockey in 69 years to ride a new partner to the Derby winner's circle.
Metal Speed : Though he has yet to win a graded race, the Silver State-sired Metal Speed won a berth in the Satsuki Sho with this third-place finish in the Spring Stakes (Grade 2, Nakayama 1,800m). Despite the definite disadvantage of a No. 17 gate and the heavy going in the Satsuki Sho, Metal Speed finished in fourth place, half a second behind winner Sol Oriens. Metal Speed has experience at Tokyo, albeit only a third over the mile, the only distance he has won at. However, the stamina the colt displayed in nearly catching Tastiera in the Satsuki Sho following an outside run for most of the race has won Metal Speed points in many a racing fan's books.
Phantom Thief : Third in the Satsuki Sho despite having lost a shoe in the backstretch, and fourth in the Hopeful Stakes, Phantom Thief has proven himself a steady racer, one that has finished only once in his five starts to date out of the top three. He is new to the distance but familiar with Tokyo, having won the Kyodo News Hai (1,800, Grade 3). A big horse with a big stride, Tokyo suits, and being the son of English champion Harbinger, who excelled over 2,400 meters, the extra distance raises no concerns. Aboard should be new partner Yutaka Take, who won last year aboard Do Deuce. If Take could win again this year, he'd be the first jockey to score a double twice. And, "Take" could be the key. Phantom Thief is bred by the Urakawa farm Tanikawa Stud, which last won the Derby with one of their own 50 years ago in 1973 with a colt named Take Hope.
Satono Glanz : A son of the 2016 Derby runnerup Satono Diamond, Satono Glanz finished eighth in his debut, but from there has risen steadily and in similar manner to Skilfing. Satono Glanz notched a second followed by three straight wins, the most recent the Grade 2 Kyoto Shimbun Hai (back in its usual place over the Kyoto 2,200m), the race that gave him his ticket to the Derby. Unlike Skilfing, Satono Glanz has only one win over the Derby distance and not at Tokyo, but at Hanshin. As a 2-year-old, he weathered the long haul to Tokyo well from his recent base without losing weight, and he has shown he can adjust to new surroundings well. Trainer Yasuo Tomomichi, whose Do Deuce won the Derby last year, is gunning to become the first trainer to win the classic twice in a row. With already three Derby wins to his name, a fourth win would also move Tomomichi into second place for most Derby wins ever. Owner business magnate Hajime Satomi, now 81 years old, fields his ninth Derby runner. Though he has come close with two seconds, Satomi has yet to win the prestigious and highly coveted event.
Others of interest:
Hearts Concerto, a son of 2004 Derby runnerup Heart's Cry, is fresh off his first test over 2,400 meters, a second by half a length to Skilfing in the Aoba Stakes. He has a third, second at Tokyo and possesses a powerful late kick that may bring him into the money. In the Satsuki Sho, Shonan Bashitto came from far off the front up the badly torn inside on heavy ground to claim fifth place, his first time out of the top three. Proven up to 2,200m, the extra distance should not pose a problem.
Hrimfaxi went to the Satsuki Sho gate with four wins and a second but heavy ground prevented him from getting the forward position he prefers. A 10-furlong specialist, the extra distance may not be a plus, but he is not to be written off.
Hopeful Stakes winner Dura Erede returns from a second in his first race over dirt, the Grade 2 UAE Derby at Meydan on March 25. With early speed, but only proven up to 2,000m, the power of this big colt may be enough to put him on a winning ticket.
The Ritto-based Top Knife has proven consistent. He was second in the Hopeful Stakes by a nose and seventh in the Satsuki Sho. He takes on Tokyo for his first time but has had good results racing to the left at Chukyo. The distance will also be two furlongs longer than he has had to date, but a little more ground may be just what he is looking for.