Japan seeks another international prize in world's richest race

Panthalassa's victory in the 2023 Saudi Cup was a sign of Japan's growing dominance on the global stage and the nation have returned to the world's most valuable race with another formidable team.

Japanese runners made up five of the top seven places in last year's $20 million contest but only one returns 12 months later in fifth-placed Crown Pride. However, the country's newest contenders form formidable opposition against their largely US and Saudi rivals.

Chief among the Japanese runners is Godolphin's Lemon Pop, who was eight lengths clear of Crown Pride when claiming his second Group 1 success in the Champions Cup last time out. Yet the most exciting renewed rivalry is between Derma Sotogake and leading US hope White Abarrio, who fought out a thrilling finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic in November.

Derma Sotogake got within a length of the striking winner at Santa Anita and makes his first start since over this nine-furlong trip, and jockey Christophe Lemaire is hopeful there is even more to come from last year's UAE Derby winner.

Dermo Sotogako, photo Liesl King

"He is in great form and there is no issue about the track surface," Lemaire said. "The horse has become more mature, stronger I think. He was still young last year and as a four-year-old he'll get better and better.

"He still has many things to show us and the field will be very strong, but he's a tough horse and he can keep a strong pace."

Market-leader White Abarrio has been something of a revelation since joining Rick Dutrow jnr in June, with a third-place finish in the Met Mile before sealing two Group 1 victories on the bounce. The five-year-old has been kept fresh for this race after being partly bought by Prince Fasil, whose maroon silks Mishriff carried to victory in this race in 2021.

"We're very happy with him," Dutrow said. "He's the kind of horse that doesn't want much fuss but when you put a rider up there he's nothing but class. I've had seven or eight different riders on him and when they come back they're just in awe of him. He must give them a great feeling. If he's on his game and runs his race, then he's going to be tough to beat."

Ushba Tesoro could manage only fifth behind White Abarrio in November but was the winner of the Dubai World Cup last year, and is one of several last-time-out scorers, including the aptly named Saudi Crown and National Treasure, who denied the reopposing Senor Buscador by a neck in last month's Pegasus.

The leading hope of the four-strong home team is Carmel Road, a former Bob Baffert runner who landed the King Faisal Cup at the track last month.