Fresh off SPICED TURTLE’S electric performance in the Japan Classic last weekend, the dirt horses will get their chance this weekend in the Group I Japan Dirt Cup, run at 1 1/8 miles on a fast main track.
The favorite is FUTURIAN OF LED, who is a relative newcomer to this group. NUKA DEATHMARCH is the defending champion of this race and has won 3 G1 races, an impressive feat to say the least. He is the only horse in the field to have raced over this dirt surface here in Japan, so that could be an advantage. He’ll have to watch, though, as there are several others in the field that could play spoiler.
(1) GIBSON (owner silversun14, 57/1) is far and away the longest price on the board against this evenly-matched field, and while this is a huge jump up for the three-year-old (the only one in the field), it’s hard to ignore the colt’s last race. After breaking his maiden in his sixth career start, he ran a very solid second in a NW2L allowance race next time out. The Canadian-bred son of Victory Gallop then put up a dazzling SP of 115 in an open-length victory in an overnight stakes race. That’s a nice number from a 3-year-old! I do have some reservations, though, as his jockey is riding for the first time and does not have the resumé that the others do. This is also his first race against older horses. We’ll see how well that last race translates here.
(2) TIZ SPECTACULAR (owner desertdog, 10/1) has been in all sorts of levels of stakes races recently – it’s a nice rainbow on the past performances. He has one G1 race to his name, a sixth-place finish in the Equinics back in February. He has finished third in both a G2 and G3 race, but his form has tailed off some since late in the summer. He finished tenth in a Grade III event back in August and could only muster eighth in an ungraded stakes back in September. If he could not be competitive with the leaders in that race, I’m not sure he’s going to fare all that much better here.
(3) NUKA DEATHMARCH (owner lenny6, 9/1) is certainly the class of this field, but will not go off as the favorite here. This will actually be his first race over a fast track since June. He caught a sloppy track when he put together a breathtaking performance in the Grade I Hit Me Handicap over in New York back in August, as well as a good track last time out in the Breeders’ Bowl Classic, where he finished fourth. In between, he was in an open allowance race on the turf, where he finished third as the heavy favorite. That was his first race on turf and he didn’t have his regular rider, so I’ll toss that race. Fun fact: he’s 2 for 2 in races outside the U.S., both of which were Group I races. This field isn’t as tough as the Classic, so maybe he gets back on track here?
(4) FUTURIAN OF LED (owner wrecks2, 5/1) goes off as the favorite despite earning just short of $500,000. For comparison’s sake, NUKA DEATHMARCH has earned north of $7.5 million in his career. He has won 13 out of 23 lifetime starts, but interestingly enough, this will be his first graded stakes start, having already notched three ungraded stakes wins so far. He definitely seems talented enough for this group, as he has put up SP numbers of over 115 in 4 out of his last 5 races. That being said, I’m not sure I’d take 5/1 on him in this spot. He’ll certainly be a wild card in this race, but has the talent to win it.
(5) ART DIRECTOR (owner pompeya, 14/1) is another horse with fairly limited stakes experience. The Japan-bred son of King Kamehameha came off a 17-month layoff in March and rattled off five straight wins, ending with an ungraded stakes win in September. His prep race for this was not quite as impressive, as he finished sixth in another ungraded stakes, which happened to be his first start in the U.S. Now he travels to Japan for this race, facing a major hike in class. This will be his first race in Japan, and while his winning streak earlier this year catches the eye, I’m not sure those races quite match up to what he’ll be facing here.
(6) PIZZA IN BED (owner larrylegend, 18/1) is the other Japan-bred in here, as he is by Deep Impact and King Kamehameha. He also appears to be a fairly recent claim, getting picked up for $50,000 back in May right here in Japan. He won that race handily, although it was on the turf course. Since the barn change, he’s been traveling through Asia, picking up a win in an open allowance in Hong Kong, and most recently finishing third in an ungraded stakes race over in India. I always enjoy seeing recently acquired horses show up in big races, although this race will be a tough ask for this horse. He’s never even won a stakes race, let along a graded one. I’ll need to see a race at this level first.
(7) IMA SO LUCKY (owner blankpoin8, 9/1) hopes to stay hot following a great win in the Breeders’ Bowl Dirt Mile earlier this month. He will follow that up by traveling outside of the U.S. for the first time. He has four graded stakes wins under his belt, although he has been a bit inconsistent at times. One concern I have with him is the distance – two of his worst finishes in graded stakes were at 9 furlongs. It seems like 8-8.5 furlongs may be his sweet spot. Even so, against this group, you definitely have to consider him on top of vertical exotics. Jockey M Clooch is back on board for the fourth straight win. Fresh off that Breeders’ Bowl win, both horse and rider may be feeling confident enough to steal this at a solid price.
(8) EUCLA OPEL (owner rbokie24, 7/1) has been away from the winner’s circle for over a year and a half now, although he’s had some very nice showings in big races. He’s finished second in 4 out of his last 7 graded stakes races. One of those second-place finishes was behind NUKA DEATHMARCH in the Grade I Hit Me Handicap back in August. Since then, he finished a decent fourth in the Grade II Bluegrass Cup Classic, but never fired in the Breeders’ Bowl Classic, finishing 17th out of 20. I’m always willing to toss those races that have huge fields, and I think this race better suits his distance preference than that race was. Not sure I’ll put him at the top of the ticket, but he could be good to use underneath.
(9) BUSINESS ETIQUETTE (owner mtkelite, 7/1) goes off as the co-second choice here, but I think you could make an argument that he should be favored here. After being in the back of the pack in the Breeders’ Bowl Classic, he came charging through the stretch to finish third. While tracks labeled “good” can prove to be tiring for the leaders, coming from all the way in the back while mud is getting kicked up required a tremendous effort. Before that, he picked up a win in the Grade II Kentucky Cup Classic. Like many others in here, he will be making his first start outside of the U.S. He has proved to be very consistent throughout the year, and could certainly contend for the win if he brings his A game.
(10) ON GOOD AUTHORITY (owner desimster6, 10/1) will be looking for his first graded stakes win on Saturday after knocking at the door all year. The gelding has hit the board in three straight starts, including a third in the Grade I Bob Woodward Memorial back in September. This seems to be his best distance, as his lone bad race of the year was in the Grade I Movieland Shiny Cup, which is run at 10 furlongs. I think he may be sitting on a nice race here at a pretty good price of 10/1. One thing to note, though, is his jockey. MJ Kelly was most recently on board for that Movieland Shiny Cup, and is only hitting at 7% in the past few months. A tough call, but I think he’ll be ready to play.
(11) UNION’S WILD (owner loki, 17/1) will be one of the longer shots on the board, as he has really struggled in his past couple of starts. He had some nice races earlier in the year, capped by a win in the Grade II Out Of The City Handicap in July. Since then, though, he never got involved in the Grade I Bob Woodward or the Grade II Windy City Gold Cup, finishing in the back of the pack in both races. After those races, the colt may welcome the change of venue, coming to Japan from the States. He does get the services of jockey T Ace, one of the top jocks in the Sim. That being said, if you look back into last year, he didn’t have much success with the horse. While he has some back class, I can’t endorse him in this spot given his recent form.
(12) DEVIL’S DARE (owner jungleboy, 8/1) is another that comes into this race in pretty dull form, although he’s been off since June. Just like UNION’S WILD, he’s finished up the track in both of his most recent two starts during the spring. Before that, though, he had been racing well, including a third in the Glenn Kegasus Tradition Killer, where he was the second choice in the betting and finished in front of some talented horses. I honestly don’t know what to do with this gelding here – this will be start number 29 and at the age of six, I wonder if he still has enough in the tank against this level of competition. At the same time, did the five-month layoff help? I’ll take a wait-and-see approach, but don’t be surprised if he comes out firing after the layoff.
(13) DARE I ASK (owner jbcri7, 7/1) looks like a promising talent, having won 8 out of his 16 career starts. He also is 1 for 1 in graded stakes races, having won the Grade III Long Acres back in August over in the U.S. That was an impressive performance, and his second SP number of 120 or higher. He took that field wire-to-wire, although the horses that finished behind him have not done all that well since. His last race was a bit disappointing, fading to sixth in an ungraded stakes race. Looking through his races, it seems almost imperative that he have the early lead. He should be able to get to the lead relatively easily in this race as there really isn’t a ton of early speed in here. If he can get to the lead and set easier fractions, he could be tough to catch.
(14) SAVAGE INSTINCTS (owner pincay, 11/1) makes his third G1 start in a row, hoping to have better fortunes than the past couple of starts. He finished in the bottom half of the field in both of those races, and hasn’t really raced well since the spring, when he had a couple of good runs in stakes races. Jockey Q Vett remains aboard here, which I’m not sure will be much help given his recent struggles. He did show some burst earlier this year with SP numbers in the high 110s, but those have fallen off of late. His last graded stakes win was back in March of 2016, so I question how well he’ll match up in a field like this.
(3) NUKA DEATHMARCH, 9/1 – This is a gut call, but the defending champ won easily over this track last year, and seems to relish the international scene. I think he springs back to life here.
(7) IMA SO LUCKY, 9/1 – The Breeders’ Bowl Dirt Mile winner could be sitting in a nice spot just off the pace.
(13) DARE I ASK, 7/1 – Could steal this if he can set easy fractions up front. He is stretching out, so I wonder if he’ll have enough in the tank at the end.
(9) BUSINESS ETIQUETTE, 7/1 – Son of Sim star STREET ETIQUETTE has been ultra-consistent this year. Came charging in the Breeders’ Bowl Classic. Can jockey M Kelly time the move right here?
Good luck to all!