The first G1 of the fall season at Tokyo is on the card this Sunday with the fall version of the Tenno Sho, or Emperor's Cup, traditionally one of the most prestigious of Japan's top-level Thoroughbred races.
Having seen the retirement of both Vodka and Company, winners of the previous two fall Emperor's Cups, and stars Dream Journey and Oken Bruce Lee expected to sit the Tenno Sho out, fans are eager to see yet another saga begin or witness the continuation of one already in the making. Either is possible with quite the stellar lineup for this year's race, which includes crowd pleaser and perpetual race favorite Buena Vista, back running for the first time since the spring Takarazuka Kinen. It will be the first time for Buena Vista to take on the Tenno Sho and the first time over 2,000 meters at Tokyo. A win of the Tenno Sho would not only be Buena Vista's fifth G1 level victory, it could also possibly land her Horse of the Year for 2010, more than a century since the Tenno Sho was begun.
The Tenno Sho in its earliest form was founded in 1905 as the Emperor's Cup by the Japan Race Club of Yokohama in honor of the Meiji Emperor. After local racing clubs around the country were merged in 1937, the race took on its current twice-a-year form. What is now considered to be the inaugural Tenno Sho was held in Tokyo in 1937 over 2,600 meters, the second race the following spring in Hanshin was 100 meters longer. The outbreak of war halted the race in both 1945 and 1946, but the Tenno Sho was back up and running in 1947. Since then, the Tenno Sho (Spring) has been held in Kyoto, the autumn version in Tokyo.
Until 1983, both the spring Tenno Sho at Kyoto and the autumn Tenno Sho at Tokyo were run over 3,200 meters, and in 1984, the fall race was shortened to 2,000 meters. Through previously, winning the Emperor's Cup meant automatically that a rerun was not possible, from 1981, the winner of either version has only been allowed to defend his or her title and since that time eight horses have won the race two or more times, quite a feat considering the difference in distance between the two versions. The Emperor's Cup remained, for a long time, closed to foreign-bred stock, but from the year 2000, was gradually opened to participation by foreign-breds and now allows an unlimited number to join the lineup. The race went international in 2005. This year, though there were early nominations from abroad, there will be no overseas participants.
The Tenno Sho (Autumn) starts at the bottom of Tokyo Racecourse homestretch past the finish line, bends around over 400 meters to the back straight, runs for more than 500 meters until the final 400-meter turn and enters the 525-meter stretch. The Tokyo stretch is the undoing of many a horse as it rises 2 meters for the first 225 meters before flattening out to the finish. The fine-grain mare Vodka, retired last year, holds both the course record and the race record - set in 2008 at the age of 4 -- of 1 minute 57.2 seconds. That time was equaled by last year's winner, the then 8-year-old Company.
Current first-place prize money for the Tenno Sho (Autumn) is 132 million yen; weights are set at 58 kilograms for 4-year-olds & up, 56 kg for anyone younger and females are saddled with 56 or 54 kg. The following are the early favorites of the 25 nominees for the 142nd running of the Tenno Sho.
BUENA VISTA: The Special Week-sired Buena Vista, 4, has had four outings this year, including her second place in Dubai in March. With two wins, she is returning to the turf for the first time since the June 27 Takarazuka, an in-no-way-embarrassing loss to this year's Arc runnerup Nakayama Festa. Buena Vista has beaten the boys in only the Kyoto Kinen, but has placed above both Jaguar Mail and Dream Journey, which shows this filly is no pushover. Less than two months after returning from Dubai, she aced the Victoria Mile over the mile at Tokyo before taking on the Takarazuka over 2,200 meters. She is known for her dramatic come-from-behind finishes and the long Tokyo stretch gives her the room to run. She has also shown she can win over fast going as well as manage softer ground, as was the case in this year's Takarazuka. The question is whether she will be able to handle not having had a sharpener coming in to the Tenno Sho. Buena Vista spent the summer in Hokkaido at Northern Farm, then moved to the Yamamoto Training Center and back to Ritto on Sept. 15. Trainer Hiroyoshi Matsuda, who is aiming for his first win of the race, says Buena Vista is looking good and showing fast times and added muscle.
EARNESTLY: Earnestly, a 5-year-old son of Grass Wonder, first started to show improvement from this time last year. And that improvement has held throughout his three starts this year. In late June, he took on his first G1 with the Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin and placed third behind globe-trotters Nakayama Festa and Buena Vista. Now coming off a decisive win of the Sapporo Kinen on Aug. 22, Earnestly shares the top rating of 118 with Jaguar Mail. He will be taking on the Tokyo 2,000 for the first time but his rotation is ideal and he has six wins at the distance at other venues.
JAGUAR MAIL: Winner of this year's spring Tenno Sho, Jaguar Mail, a 6-year-old by Jungle Pocket, will be the first runner since Meisho Samson in 2007 to make a bid to bag both Tenno Sho versions in one year. His eighth-place in his last outing, the Takarazuka Kinen, seemed something of a fluke but blinkers are expected to help him concentrate in the Emperor's Cup. With three wins in a row at Tokyo to his name, Jaguar Mail is no stranger to the course's winner's circle and it would come as no surprise if he made it there again on Sunday.
SHINGEN: Of his nine career wins Shingen, six have come at Fuchu. The Tokyo whiz by White Muzzle bred at Shadai Farm came into his own last year, winning 3-of-5, two of the wins graded. He was beaten in his first race of the fall in the Sankei Sho All Comers, before taking on the fall Tenno Sho. He placed fifth in the race but was later found to have suffered a break. Back again for the All Comers this year in his only outing for 2010, Shingen aced it, showing he hasn't lost his edge.
ALISEO: Son of Symboli Kris S, this 3-year-old colt is now 4 for 7, with two wins this year, one at Tokyo and is coming off a victory in the G2 Mainichi Okan. Admittedly, Aliseo is outranked against the older horses, especially G1 winners, but he has proven he can outrun them. He pulled away and quickened impressively in the Mainichi Okan and has demonstrated that he is able to hold back. However, he will need the help of the pace to maintain his rhythm. His sire captured the Tenno Sho (Autumn) twice, in 2002 and 2003.
EISHIN APOLLON: Another 3-year-old, this one by Giant's Causeway, Eishin Apollon has had an inconsistent year, with two seconds, a ninth and an 11th-place finish in his two G1 bids this year, the Satsuki Sho and the NHK Mile, respectively. He was runnerup to Aliseo in his last race, the Mainichi Okan on Oct. 10 and has only one graded level win to his name, the G2 Keio Hai Nisai Stakes but came second to Rose Kingdom in the G1 level Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes as a 2-year-old. Though, weighing in at just over 500 kg, he seems built for the shorter distances, Eishin Apollon seems to prefer 1,800 meters and longer. The Tokyo stretch would seem to suit him but he will have to contend with the likes of Buena Vista and Jaguar Mail, much tougher competition than the Mainichi Okan dealt him.
CAPTAIN THULE: Much had been expected of this Agnes Tachyon colt after he won the Satsuki Sho in 2008, but he broke a leg ahead of the Japanese Derby, an injury that sidelined him for a year. The road back to prominence for the Hideyuki Mori-trained Captain Thule began in August of last year with the Sekiya Kinen at Niigata, where he came in fourth out of 18 over 1,600 meters. A month later at Hanshin, he held off 3-year-old Break Run Out by a neck to win the 2,000-meter Asahi Challenge Cup. Captain Thule bypassed the Mainichi Okan on Oct. 11 and took on last year's Tenno Sho (Autumn) only to finish in a crushing 12th-place. This year has not been kind with only four outings and one win. That win came in his last race out, once again the G3 Asahi Challenge Cup at Hanshin. His winning time was a full 2 seconds slower than the Tenno Sho (Autumn) record, but some believe the 5-year-old could still hold his own among this year's members.
PELUSA: From a magnificent four-for-four start form his debut, the 3-year-old Kazuo Fujisawa-trained Pelusa flubbed the start in his next two outings, the Tokyo Yushun and the Mainichi Okan. Three of his wins have been at Tokyo, two of them at 2,000 meters. This son of Zenno Rob Roy, who won the race in 2004, has what it takes. Whether he can make the break is the question.
Other names receiving mention are Super Hornet and Never Bouchon, as well as Smile Jack. For those who enjoy taking a hint from the past years, the favorite has won five times and placed twice in the last decade. The winner has also been the third and fourth choice to the gate and once, in 2005, the race was won by the No. 14 pick Heavenly Romance. On that day, however, the Emperor himself was watching.
Post time is 3:40 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 31.