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[ODDS and EVENS] Double Delight for Japanese Trainer Yoshito Yahagi at Breeders’ Cup

Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine become the first Japan-trained horses to win races at the prestigious global event, which has been held since 1984.

Ed Odeven

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Trainer Yoshito Yahagi enjoys the thrill of victory at the Breeders' Cup World Championships on November 6 at Del Mar Racecourse in Del Mar, California.

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Trainer Yoshito Yahagi’s job never gets any easier. There are always meticulous details and plans to follow every day of the horse racing season.

But some days produce splendid results for Yahagi’s horses, and the daily grind provides moments of unforgettable joy.

The final day of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships was one of those days, and the significance of what two of Yahagi’s horses achieved on Saturday, November 6, half a world away from his normal work environment, can’t be overstated.

“It’s so good to have been able to demonstrate the strength of Japanese racing at America’s biggest racing festival,” the 60-year-old trainer said at Del Mar Racecourse after Loves Only You (Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf) and Marche Lorraine (Breeders’ Cup Distaff) won their respective races at the thoroughbred extravaganza north of San Diego, California.

He added: “It’s unbelievable to win a race at the Breeders’ Cup. We’ve made history in Japanese racing and we’re thrilled. Our team believed in trying to win a race at this famous meeting and that’s why we were successful.”

Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine share another distinction: Both were bred at Northern Farm in Hokkaido.

Breeders’ Cup Through the Years

The Breeders’ Cup is in its 38th year. From 1984-2006, it was held on a single day, then expanded to a two-day showcase the next year. 

This year’s two-day event featured 14 Grade I races on dirt and turf, and a total purse of $31 million USD (¥3.497 billion JPY) up for grabs. As of October 27, 196 thoroughbreds were entered, including 56 foreign-based horses (eight from Japan).

In October 1996, owner Yoshiki Akazawa decided to make 5-year-old Taiki Blizzard, son of 1977 American Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, the first Japanese horse to participate in a Breeders’ Cup race. 

Jockey Yukio Okabe and Taiki Blizzard finished in last place in the 13-horse Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine Racecourse in Toronto.

A few days before the big race, Akazawa’s racing manager, Nobutaka Tada, predicted that Taiki Blizzard could be an influential trailblazer for Japanese racing.

“If he runs well it will encourage others to come,” Tada was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune.

It wasn’t a banner performance for Taiki Blizzard, but his appearance at Woodbine marked the start of a quarter-century quest for Japanese-based horses and their handlers to win at the Breeders’ Cup.

Thirteen Japanese horses had competed over the years in various Breeders’ Cup races, and all of them failed to finish in first place. The previous best? In 2010, Red Desire placed fourth in the Filly & Mare Turf.

Loves Only You and Marche Lorraine changed the storyline on a glorious Saturday afternoon in Southern California. 

Jockey Yuga Kawada, one of the premier riders on the Japan Racing Association circuit (currently No. 2 in wins and overall earnings in 2021, trailing only Christophe Lemaire in both categories) guided 5-year-old Loves Only You, the third favorite, to victory in the $2 millon Filly & Mare Turf, a 1⅜-mile (2,200-meter) race.

In the fourth of nine races on a busy afternoon at Del Mar, Kawada’s ride crossed the finish line in 2 minutes, 13.87 seconds. The Deep Impact-sired bay mare held off My Sister Nat by a half-length for the breakthrough victory. The favorite, War Like Goddess, finished third. Post time was 1:59 p.m.

“I am quite overjoyed,” Kawada told reporters on one of the greatest days of his professional life. “I was so excited I don’t really remember what I did the moment we passed the finish post but I may have shot my fist into the air.”

Who could blame him?

“With this overseas trip, I am so happy to have realized the dreams of those connected with Loves Only You and the dreams of Japan’s fans,” Kawada commented. “I want to express my appreciation to all those on her team. I consider it a great honor to have stood on this stage.”

An International Test Earlier This Year

Loves Only You galloped to victory in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup, a 2,000-meter race, in Hong Kong on April 25. Hong Kong jockey Vincent Ho brilliantly handled his first ride aboard Loves Only You, which provided a huge sense of accomplishment for Yahagi, who won there for the first time that day.

“I’m so excited I can barely speak,” Yahagi said, according to the Japan Racing Association. “She (Loves Only You) was the only one coming from Dubai. And that made it hard to prepare, but she has matured and bravely gave it her all. I owe her so much. And I owe so much to my staff, who overcame a lot of difficulties in preparing her for here. I am so proud of everyone.” 

Loves Only You’s other G1 victory occurred at the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) in 2019 at Tokyo Racecourse.

Victories, of course, are expected from Deep Impact-sired thoroughbreds. The late Deep Impact, who passed away in July 2019, was the Japanese Horse of the Year in 2005 and ’06, and retired with a career record of 12 victories in 14 races. Deep Impact’s father, Sunday Silence, won the 1989 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. His progeny’s legacy as a sire is a major success story featuring the current generation of JRA equine stars, including G1 winners Contrail, Gran Alegria, World Premiere and Akaitorino Musume over the past couple years.

Glory for Marche Lorraine

Irish jockey Oisin Murphy was selected to ride Marche Lorraine in the $2 million Distaff, the 5-year-old’s international G1 debut.

Yahagi knows the 26-year-old quite well, with Murphy having saddled up for more than 340 races on Japan-trained horses in Japan, Hong Kong and Dubai.

This time, Murphy handled the marquee test in Marche Lorraine and Yahagi’s first Breeders’ Cup appearance. Marche Lorraine, sired by 2012 Japanese Triple Crown winner Orfevre, edged Dunbar Road by a nose to shock the field in the 1⅛-mile (1,800-meter) race on dirt, doing so in a jaw-dropping 45-1 upset about two hours after Loves Only You won.

Marche Lorraine’s winning time: 1 minute, 47.67 seconds.

Murphy effectively handled the natural elements in the high-pressure race, with the winner confirmed in a photo finish.

“With the shadows, it’s impossible to know exactly where the [finish] line is,” Murphy said, according to The Associated Press. “It was a brilliant performance. I thought I would try to ignore her odds and give her every chance.”

Yahagi, who is based out of the Ritto Training Center in Shiga Prefecture, delivered an interesting post-race analysis of what he was thinking when Marche Lorraine was involved in the stiff competition.

“The high pace and her position toward the rear turned out to work in our favor,” he commented later.

“I’d thought that if the pace were high she wouldn’t be able to keep up, but at the far turn she still had a good hold on the reins and I started to think, ‘Just maybe she can win.’ When I watched the slow motion of her crossing the finish line, I saw how very close it had been. I’m so glad we won.”

Two races, two hours apart, two victories. An unbelievable day for Yoshito Yahagi.

Author: Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays, in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.