ONE of only two Group 1 races run on dirt in the JRA and previously named the Japan Cup Dirt, the Champions Cup was held at Chukyo racecourse for its fifth renewal.

In an effort to increase both domestic and international attention, the Champions Cup has seen significant changes to its core elements since its inception.

Changes include venue, race distance and the direction in which it is run over. It is now staged over nine furlongs and run left-handed to conform with the American norm.

Despite these changes and the overwhelming popularity of turf racing in Japan, the race has still yet to capture the interest of racing audiences.

However, one distinctly coloured entrant ensured that public anticipation almost matched the preceding week’s Japan Cup. Some €130 million was wagered on the race, a 10% increase to that of 2020.

Striking Sodashi

The brilliant white Sodashi is already something of a legend to Japanese racing fans, based just on her striking looks.

It is almost unfortunate that she is better known for her appearance than her accomplishments on the racecourse. The three-year-old is a two-time Group 1 winner, including an Oka Sho (1000 Guineas) win in a record time.

As a two-year-old she remained unbeaten and was champion juvenile filly.

Sodashi was making her first start on dirt and bidding to emulate her sire Kurofune as a dirt and turf Group 1 winner. Kurofune won the same race 20 years ago in its previous iteration as the Japan Cup Dirt.

The decision to run Sodashi on the dirt sent her fans into a frenzy. She was being widely compared on social media to Shoei Ohtani, an iconic Japanese baseball star who excels in both pitching and batting.

Racing fans’ hysteria ultimately ended in disappointment as Sodashi trailed home in 12th place. Adopting her normal front-running tactics, the Hayato Yoshida-trained filly setting a modest pace before weakening approaching the two-furlong pole.

Despite her poor performance, Sodashi was still trending at number one on Twitter in Japan after the race.

She travelled well throughout so it is unlikely the surface played a significant part in the filly’s poor finishing position. A more likely conclusion is that competing against older horses and colts, and the culmination of a busy season, thwarted the filly in her first start on dirt.

While all the pre-race talk surrounded the Kaneko Makoto-owned filly, the race was dominated by a dirt specialist.

Strongly supported in the betting and sent to post as race favourite, T O Keynes bounced out smartly to race in fifth or sixth place throughout.

As the field entered Chukyo’s home straight, the Kohei Matsuyama-ridden colt eased to the lead while remaining firmly on the bridle.

Under nothing more than a hands and heels ride, T O Keynes powered clear continuing to extend his advantage to pass the post a hugely impressive six-length winner.

The 2020 winner Chuwa Wizard finished in second with Another Truth a further length behind in third.

Enjoying a fine run of form, T O Keynes has won four of his five starts in 2021. The four-year-old is a winner of eight races from 15 career starts, between both the JRA and NAR, amassing earnings of €2.5 million.

Milestone win

The Champions Cup success was a milestone winner for his trainer. It was a first JRA Group 1 and just third graded title for Daisuke Takayanagi.

It was Kohei Matsuyama’s fifth JRA Group 1 win as a rider. He is better known for his partnership with the champion filly Daring Tact.

T O Keynes is the fourth produce of the twice-placed JRA-based mare Maxim Café (Manhattan Café). He becomes the first Group 1 winner for Arrow Stud’s Sinister Minister.

The stallion, an American Grade 1 winner, has established himself as one of the most prolific sources of winners in the NAR.

The 18-year-old stood for a fee of €20,000 in 2021. Prior to siring his first Group 1 winner, Sinister Minister had his 2022 fee increased to €27,000 by Arrow Stud.