A $1.8 million-selling son of Galileo, Japan won the biggest race of his career on Aug. 21 when he outdueled Crystal Ocean to win the Grade 1 Juddmonte International Stakes.
While the Juddmonte International is on turf, the race earned him a berth into this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic on dirt at Santa Anita Park via the "Win and You're In" Challenge Series. Let’s get to know the newest superstar from trainer Aidan O’Brien’s barn.
Japan didn’t quite understand the racing game in his debut last September and was beaten 6 ½ lengths by stablemate Sydney Opera House over a mile. Only 12 days later, O’Brien sent him out for his second start where Japan showed massive improvement to win by three-quarters of a length over seven furlongs on heavy going.
The colt ended his 2-year-old season with his third start in less than a month, and he beat another stablemate in Mount Everest by a nose in the Group 2 Beresford Stakes.
Japan returned the following May in the Group 2 Dante Stakes as a prep for the Group 1 Epsom Derby. He had to brush the rust off in that start, finishing fourth by 5 ¾ lengths to Telecaster. That start proved to be exactly what Japan needed as a tune-up for the second leg of the English Triple Crown in June.
Racing toward the rear of the 13 horse field in the Epsom Derby, Japan was closing fast in the 1 ½-mile race and he was involved in a historic five-horse photo finish. As one of five horses to finish in the top six spots for Aidan O’Brien, Japan finished third by half a length to stablemate Anthony Van Dyck.
That Derby effort seemed to propel Japan up to a new level in recent months.
Dropping back in class somewhat, Japan impressed at Royal Ascot when he won the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes on the Friday racecard during the meet. Running in the back of the field with just one horse beat early on in the 1 ½ mile race, he looked comfortable under jockey Ryan Moore as Moore took him a bit wide into the turn. Inside the final two furlongs, Japan clicked into gear and took command, pulling away to win by 4 ½ lengths.
From there, Japan made his way across the English Channel to try again for a Group 1 win, and he would not be denied at Longchamp in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris on July 14.
Japan stuck closer to the leader this time, running in third one path off the rail. Moore sat patiently on his mount in the 1 ½-mile race as Japan's stablemate Western Australia set the pace. As they entered the home stretch, Moore asked his mount to go and Japan had the lead as they hit the final three furlongs. While there were horses closing on him, it was clear Japan had enough left to hold them off, and Moore just gave him a vigorous hand ride in the final stages.
With a Group 1 win now on his résumé, it was time for Japan to tackle tougher competition. That came in the form of last week’s Juddmonte International against a field of older horses that included four other Group 1 winners.
Japan again tracked closer to the leaders than his earlier starts in the year, settling in fourth when running a path off the rail in the about 1 ¼-mile race. Japan had his work cut out for him to catch Crystal Ocean, who was starting to accelerate in the final three furlongs and take the lead from Circus Maximus. But the fight was far from over as Japan found another gear when a pack of horses reached his flank. He drew even with Crystal Ocean with less than a furlong to go and the pair battled to the line. A few strides from the finish, Japan stuck his nose in front and kept it there to win the photo.
Japan’s major target for the fall is the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October, a race Enable won last year on her way to capturing the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. However, there are questions that remain about Japan following that same path.
Japan is by one of the top sires in the world in Galileo, who himself was an Irish Derby winner and champion racehorse. But everything Galileo has done in the breeding shed has overshadowed his career as a racehorse, as he's been represented by 303 stakes winners, 200 of those coming at the graded stakes level, through Aug. 27.
Most of Galileo’s success has come on turf, with only seven of his stakes winners (2.31%) winning a stakes on the dirt. However, it is fair to say that his is a sireline that shows it can produce dirt horses. His sire Sadler’s Wells is the grandsire of Medaglia d’Oro – sire of greats such as Rachel Alexandra and Songbird – and Galileo himself is the grandsire of last weekend’s Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes winner Code of Honor.
Galileo has been represented by three runners in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for Aidan O’Brien, with Churchill finishing the best when seventh in 2017. All five of his Breeders’ Cup winners have come on turf, and 10 of Aidan O’Brien’s 12 Breeders’ Cup winners have come on the grass as well. O'Brien's two Breeders' Cup dirt winners were in the Juvenile and the now-defunct Marathon.
From the 17 horses O’Brien has sent out in the Classic, three have hit the board, with his best finishes coming from runner-ups Giant’s Causeway (2000) and Henrythenavigator (2008).
While O’Brien can obviously train horses to do well at the Breeders’ Cup, there isn’t much to suggest Japan will like dirt when looking at his pedigree. His full sister (same sire [father] and dam [mother])Secret Gesture was a Group 2 winner on turf and English Oaks runner-up who also finished first in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes but was disqualified to third. Another full brother was a Group 3 winner while a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) was a listed stakes winner – with all their wins coming on turf.
Japan’s pedigree runs deep with turf horses with his stakes-placed dam a half-sister to Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sagamix and Group 1 winner Sagacity, both of them subsequent sires. Two of his dam's half-sisters also produced turf Group 1 winners.
There is no guarantee that Japan will even head to the Breeders’ Cup Classic if he flies to California in November. While his connections aren’t afraid to run turf horses on dirt, they do try to point horses who have some past dirt ability in their bloodlines to the Classic. Both Churchill and Gleneagles (eighth in the 2016 Classic) came from Storm Cat mares, suggesting they were capable of racing on dirt (it didn’t hurt either that Gleneagles was out of a full sister to Giant’s Causeway). Galileo's other starter in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Rip Van Winkle, ran in the synthetic era at Santa Anita Park, when its main track suited turf horses.
We know Japan can easily handle the 1 ¼ miles of the Breeders' Cup Classic, but the biggest question if he makes the trip to Santa Anita is whether he can defy his pedigree and take to the dirt surface in order to give Galileo and Aidan O’Brien their first victory in the race.