Triple Crown Turning Point: How Sharpening Focus Worked Wonders for Whirlaway
Rarely does so much hinge on one horse in a race as it does with France Go de Ina in the 153rd Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Belmont Park.
If the colt should shock the world following his seventh-place finish in the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago, he would not only bank the winner’s $800,000 share of the $1.5 million purse for owner Yuji Inaida but also the $1 million bonus the New York Racing Association is offering to a Japan-based horse that wins the Belmont.
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This quest is about much more than money, though, for a nation battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the coronavirus right now, being able to come back to Japan with a big win like this would probably be very uplifting,” said Masaki Takano, assistant trainer to Hideyuki Mori, with Kate Hunter serving as interpreter.
Mori, 62, has long been intrigued by the prospect of winning a Triple Crown race. He saddled Ski Captain ahead of a 14th-place finish in the 1995 Kentucky Derby. His bold nature was rewarded three years later. He became the first Japan-based trainer to win a Group 1 race outside of his country when Seeking the Pearl captured the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville.
Japanese owners and trainers have typically avoided the Triple Crown races. Their runners excel more on turf than on dirt. They often lack the raw speed of their American counterparts, at least partly due to differences in training styles. Japanese conditioners tend to emphasize endurance, which can result in one-paced horses with tremendous staying power but who start sluggishly and face an uphill battle after that.
France Go de Ina’s connections had hoped to win the UAE Derby Sponsored by Emirates NBD in March and use that to gain entry into the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. A poor start contributed greatly to a sixth-place result, forcing them to scrap their initial plan.
“We were hoping originally to go to the Kentucky Derby from Dubai, but that was impossible,” Takano said. “Being nominated for the Triple Crown, we were able to give it a go for the other two.”
Top jockey Joel Rosario, aboard for the UAE Derby disappointment, retained the mount for the Preakness. They enjoyed a much better start this time, with Rosario securing a good stalking position in third. But the chestnut son of Will Take Charge retreated when faced with a good deal of kickback at Pimlico Race Course. He had received kickback while winning two of his first three starts in Japan, but dirt tracks there are much sandier in composition.
Will that experience and the additional time in the United States allow France Go de Ina to rebound after finishing 17 ½ lengths behind Preakness winner and Belmont contender Rombauer?
“When you compare it to how he shipped in for the Preakness, his condition is absolutely fabulous,” Takano said. “He’s really grown into himself. He’s put on a lot of muscle. We’re looking forward to what could be a very exciting day.
“This would be a race where we know the horse is in a much better place physically to be a true contender.”
With Rosario opting for Runhappy Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World, Ricardo Santana Jr. will be given a leg up by Mori. The former $100,000 purchase at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale will break from post five in a field of eight. According to the morning line, he is listed as the longest shot on the board at 30-1. Essential Quality, fourth after a wide trip in the Kentucky Derby for his lone defeat, is favored at 2-1.
It was not that long ago, however, that distance-loving Lani asserted himself on behalf of Japan in the Belmont. He rallied to be third after finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness. Lani remains the only Japan-based horse to compete in all three Triple Crown races.
In an example of how differently Japanese trainers prepare for a demanding race such as the mile-and-a-half Belmont, Mori worked France Go de Ina five furlongs in 1:02.62 on Wednesday. The rest of the field had all completed their final drills more than a week before this Saturday’s race.
Despite such differences, the massive challenge is very much the same for every starter.
“The first time he’s ever raced this far would be our initial concern,” Takano said.