The first JRA Grade 1 race of 2023 will be run at Tokyo on Sunday, Feb. 19, when the February Stakes kicks off the top-level races for the year. It’s one of just two Grade 1 dirt races on the JRA calendar, the other being the Champions Cup, which is held in December.
The Grade 1 February Stakes is run over a mile and is a race for 4-year-olds and up. The February Stakes winner will receive an automatic starting position, and fees paid, into the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), which will be run on Nov. 4 at the 40th Breeders’ Cup World Championships. This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
This year’s race sees 18 domestic nominations, plus a first for the race in an overseas runner, the Canadian-trained horse Shirl’s Speight.
Shirl’s Speight, winner of the 2022 Maker’s Mark Mile (G1) over the turf course at Keeneland, is trained by Roger Attfield and will be ridden in the race by Joao Moreira, a four-time champion rider in Hong Kong with experience in Japan.
On Sunday, assistant trainer Allyson Hartfield told the JRA: “He’s happy, he’s eating well and he’s pretty close to a hundred percent (after the long journey). I’ve spoken with the trainer and the only variable we have right now is whether he likes the dirt or not. The dirt was deeper and heavier than I expected but I think it will be much different on race day when it dries out, but he handled it well this morning.”
The American-bred Cafe Pharoah (this year taking on the G1 Saudi Cup) has won the Grade 1 February Stakes the past two years and set a new record time for the race last year when he won in a time of 1 minute, 33.8 seconds.
Here’s a look at some of the Japanese runners expected to take on the first JRA Grade 1 of the year:
Lemon Pop: The American-bred 5-year-old just keeps on finding more, as he showed when winning the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes over 1,400 meters at Tokyo in January, making it seven wins now from 10 starts. The chances are he will have to find even more with this next step up in class and distance.
Assistant trainer Toshikiko Hokari recently commented on the horse: “He didn’t start particularly well last time, but the jockey made sure things went smoothly enough. At the top of the homestraight, I thought things looked fine, but the late challenge from Gilded Mirror and other horses made it more difficult, although he was able to hold on and win.”
Gilded Mirror now misses this next race through injury, and with a number of Japan’s top dirt horses on duty in Saudi Arabia, things could go in favor of Lemon Pop again. Ryusei Sakai has been booked for the ride on the son of Lemon Drop Kid.
Dry Stout: The 4-year-old colt by Sinister Minister got his 2023 campaign under way last month, when he finished second in the Subaru Stakes (Listed) over 1,400 meters at Chukyo. He has only had six career starts, but has won four times and is unbeaten in two races at Tokyo.
Trainer Mitsunori Makiura said: “It got a bit crowded on the run for home last time and he had to wait to get his finish in, but when the opening came, he ran on well. Up to now he’s been able to race from good positions in his races, but I wanted to see how he could finish running from mid-position. In that sense, it was an ideal test for him, and I’m satisfied with how things turned out and to see that he could finish second from where he ran in the trip.”
Keita Tosaki will ride Dry Stout and thinks the horse’s good footwork can help him stay over the distance this time.
Meisho Hario: Having his first run of the year in the Grade 1 February Stakes, the 6-year-old Meisho Hario shows plenty of good form, as seen in his last run, when he finished third to Ushba Tesoro in the Grade 1 Tokyo Daishoten at the end of last year.
It has been the usual pattern with him since, as assistant trainer Wataru Kurihara noted: “He’s had his break at the farm and everything’s as expected leading up to this race. Last time he was well forward in the run, and became a target for the eventual winner of that race, but overall it was a positive result.”
Speedy Kick: The flying filly from the NAR has won her last three starts in NAR races, but she won very easily last time and she’ll get the 2kg allowance given to fillies and mares in this week’s big race.
She deserves to take her chance here and trainer Tomoyuki Fujihara commented on the filly’s condition: “She recovered quicker than usual after winning the Tokyo Cinderella Mile at Oi last time and her appetite’s been good. Looking to the February Stakes, we’ve been able to match her training load with the condition she’s in, and we could give her some strong workouts with her weight at 490 kg after returning to the stable.”
It will be the first ever JRA race for the filly, but the 4-year-old by Taisei Legend is worth respecting.
Red le Zele: The 7-year-old is another having is first race of the year, and while generally thought of as a horse that runs over shorter distances, his last two runs over 1,600 meters have been in the 2021 and 2022 Grade 1 February Stakes, where he finished fourth and sixth, respectively, and last year’s race was run on a heavy track.
From the all-powerful stable of trainer Takayuki Yasuda, he commented recently on Red le Zele: “I thought about Saudi Arabia with him, but then considered that it would be better to go to the February Stakes and to train him on the uphill at Ritto in preparation for this. If all goes well after this next race, we can make the decision to go to Dubai or not.”
Yuga Kawada, the horse’s regular jockey, once again takes the ride on Red le Zele.
Shonan Nadeshiko: With Gilded Mirror out of the race, 6-year-old Shonan Nadeshiko is now the only other female (along with Speedy Kick) in the lineup, and she will be ridden by Takeshi Yokoyama, who will be looking to get the best out of the daughter of Orfevre. Having run only in NAR races for the entire 2022 season, and finishing just out of the money in her two previous starts at Tokyo, she probably needs to find a bit more, but trainer Naosuke Sugai doesn’t see any problem.
“She just ran out of steam in the final 100 meters of the Tokyo Daishoten last time, but up against male horses, I think she did her best. She’s had her usual routine at the farm, and returning to the stable, it’s been as usual with her,” the trainer said.
Soliste Thunder: The 8-year-old Soliste Thunder finished fourth in last year’s February Stakes, and after that also managed a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Godolphin Mile in Dubai last March. He’s only had two races since the race at Meydan, and this will be his first run of 2023.
Assistant trainer Juntaro Taira said: “He ran well in his last race, despite not being able to run on at the finish. He’s been at the farm for a break and he seems a little loose, but we haven’t rushed things with him and from now we can get him tuned up for this next race.”
Helios and T M South Dan are two other runners that deserve a mention, with Yutaka Take riding Helios and Christophe Lemaire aboard T M South Dan. Take last won the February Stakes in 2019 with Inti, and has won the race five times, while Lemaire claimed his second win in the race on Cafe Pharoah two years ago.