Last year Lani became the first Japanese-based runner in the Kentucky Derby since 1995. He was a long way from good, mind you. He finished an irrelevant ninth in the Derby, was fifth in the Preakness, and then finished third in what was a really bad Belmont. The appearance of the horse in general didn't exactly revolutionize the Triple Crown or have people calling for more Japanese influence in the Kentucky Derby.
It did, however, fire up the imaginations of the powers that be at the Derby. When you have a Japanese horse in a North American race, the simulcast market opens to you in Japan. Japan allows only a very limited number of international races to be simulcast - 24 last year - so it is very tough to have your race selected. The Japanese love racing and they love gambling, so that market can be very lucrative. For the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last year, for example, the Japanese wagered a staggering $40 million. For reference, that's about a third of the entire North American handle for the 13 Breeders' Cup races combined last year.
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It comes as no surprise, then, that the Derby has looked to aggressively attack that market, and that is why we are paying attention to the Hyacinth Stakes, run this Sunday at the famous Tokyo Racecourse, for the first time.
This race, run at a mile on dirt, is the second race of a two-leg Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. Just as horses earn points in North American prep races, points are on the line here. The top point earner from Japan will earn a guaranteed spot in the Derby. The first race was the Cattleya Sho, run in November and also at a mile, which offered points on a 40-16-8-4 basis. The Hyacinth points are slightly more generous - 50-20-10-5. Last year Lani won the Cattleya Sho, was a flat fifth in the Hyacinth, and then headed to Dubai to win the UAE Derby to win his spot in the Kentucky Derby.
The Derby isn't the only Triple Crown race trying to get into the Japanese action. The Belmont has offered a $1 million bonus to any Japanese-based horse who wins their race. As we will see later, that could have an impact on the decisions of horses coming out of this race.
The Japanese often have large fields, and this is no exception. There are 20 horses entered in the Hyacinth, with 18 spots available. Of those, four stand out as the most interesting for our purposes:
Mont Saint Legume won the Cattleya Sho, so he is in the driver's seat to claim the Derby starting spot. If he finishes second or better in this race then he locks down the spot. He is an undefeated colt, but that race in November was just his second career start, and he hasn't run since. It's hard to know, then, what he has to offer here because his maturity is a major issue. Already having a win at a mile helps, but his last win was not exactly dominant, so there are real concerns.
Caucus was second in the Cattleya Sho, so if he wins here he clinches the Derby spot. He is owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the host of the Dubai World Cup, one of the world's leading horse owners and a guy who is desperate to win the Derby. Caucus is a son of Street Sense, so we know the Derby capability is in his blood. He needs to improve considerably to be a factor here, though. With the Maktoum connection it's a good bet that we will also see him in the UAE Derby if he comes out of this one okay.
Epicharis comes into this race at a disadvantage because he has no points, but the impressive undefeated colt is likely to be favored in this field. He has won three times and done so very impressively, leaving his opponents far up the track. He's not the calmest runner, but neither was Lani. If he earns the most points then it could be a major headache for Derby organizers. His owners have indicated that their preference right now is to go from here to the UAE Derby, and then to head to New York to chase that Belmont bonus. So, his storyline might not be the best, but he is a deserving favorite.
The final horse of note here is Foggy Night. He is a son of Tapit, like Lani and so many other recent Triple Crown entrants, including Belmont winners Tonalist and Creator. Tapit has been North America's top sire each of the last three years. Foggy Night was bought for well north of $1 million at auction, so expectations are high. He has run only once, but it was an impressive win. Top Euro jockey Ryan Moore, who has eight Breeders' Cup wins to his credit, was on board then and will have the mount again here. He's a very intriguing horse, and if Epicharis is bet down too low then this is where to look.
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