Champion Hong Kong stayer Werther has fallen agonisingly short of what would have been a historic victory in Sunday’s Group One Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin, Japan.
A neck was all that separated John Moore’s superstar from the winner Mikki Rocket at the end of the 2,200m feature, but the effort again highlighted the six-year-old’s courage after an interrupted preparation.
The 2015-16 Horse of the Year was sidelined for three months after bleeding from both nostrils when second in the Group One Hong Kong Gold Cup in February, which forced Moore to create a backup plan but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Werther didn’t get the cleanest of runs when resuming over a mile at Sha Tin on June 3, while he faced further obstacles once he landed in Japan.
He was caught up in the earthquake that shook Osaka on Monday – one that claimed the lives of five people and injured hundreds more – and connections considered withdrawing from the race amid concerns over the safety of the horse and the staff looking after him.
Werther also lost considerable weight – on Sunday he raced 60 pounds below his first-up run – and also had no luck at the barrier draw, given gate 13.
But even with all that against him, jockey Hugh Bowman thought he was going to win with 200m to go. After going back from wide alley, Werther settled nicely as the leaders set a strong gallop.
Bowman started to get busy with 600m to go, swooping around the field and letting down strongly.
Werther took off after Mikki Rocket, who had kicked clear, but he just felt the pinch at the end and couldn’t overhaul his rival before arriving at the winning post.
“Although we didn’t win, I couldn’t be happier with the horse’s performance,” Bowman said. “At the top of the straight I thought we had them covered.
“I had a beautiful run in transit, he enjoyed the genuine speed that’s here in Japan. If he didn’t have the setback earlier in the year and had been able to be prepared for this from the start, I think he would have won.
“I think just having the one run over the mile into a Japanese 2,200m race, it really is a testing race.
“Although it suits this horse’s style of racing, I think his condition gave out due to the preparation that he had. But full credit to John and his stable for getting him to come here off the back of that at this level and still run so well.
“It’s disappointing because I really thought at the 200m we had them covered, but I got to the winner and I felt like on the line it was going away from me, so credit where credit is due, we were beaten fairly and squarely on the day.”
Werther was only the second foreign horse ever to contest the Takarazuka Kinen after Australia’s Seto Stayer came ninth in 1997.
It is one of two all-star races in Japan, alongside December’s Arima Kinen, with fans voting for their favourite horses and the top 10 holding entries getting selected, while the rest of the 16-horse field is made up from the next highest-rated locals.