When trainer Yoshito Yahagi decided to gallop his Group One stars Mozu Ascot and Lys Gracieux together at Sha Tin on Wednesday, he also gave racing fans from all over the world a special treat – pitting jockeys Christophe Lemaire and Joao Moreira against each other.
The gallop was a pure study of excellence as the chestnut Mozu Ascot and the black filly Lys Gracieux went stride for stride down the home straight on the course proper, with neither of their champion jockeys asking for anything too strenuous but each of their mounts giving generously.
The pair went 800m together and put it behind them in 50.9 seconds. It was what trainers call “an improving half-mile” with each 200m unit being run slightly quicker than the previous. They clocked 36.8 seconds for the last 600m, 23.1 for the final 400m and 11.5 for the ultimate split.
Yahagi, 57, won his first Group One race on the JRA circuit with Grand Prix Boss in 2010 and his first trainers’ premiership in 2014, a feat he repeated two seasons later with 57 wins. This season he’s running second on the title chase with 52, four behind Hideaki Fujiwara.
While he’s clearly had the quantity, Yahagi has also enjoyed some quality this year, with Frankel’s son Mozu Ascot winning the Group One Yasuda Kinen (1,600m) at Tokyo in early June and Lys Gracieux having taken the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Group Two, 2,200m) at Kyoto on November 11.
Lemaire and Moreira seemed to enjoy being bracketed in the workout and chatted happily in the aftermath of a piece of work that was sure to have satisfied the trainer.
Frenchman Lemaire, 39, was one of the first foreign jockeys (along with Italian Mirco Demuro) to receive full-time licences to ride in Japan. That was in early 2016 and he wasted no time making his mark, finishing second in that year’s JRA jockeys’ premiership with 186 – just one behind Keita Tosaki.
In year two, Lemaire made no mistake, reversing the premiership positions with Tosaki but with a margin of 28 between them, on a 199 to 171 scoreline.
This year, Lemaire has improved again. Although the season doesn’t conclude until the end of December, Lemaire’s second title is in the bag. In fact he’s bolted home with Moreira-like superiority – the margin at this stage is 57 winners over Demuro.
Lemaire’s strike rate has improved year by year as well, and currently it’s 27.2 per cent (201 winners from 733 rides). Curiously, it’s not the best strike rate in the JRA – that belongs to Moreira, who has had just 208 rides in Japan this year but won 72 of them in a startling series of cameos since August.
Another of Japan’s big guns for Sunday’s Longines international race meeting is Sungrazer, who will be handled by Moreira in our richest race, the HK$28 million Hong Kong Cup (2,000m).
Sungrazer, sporting a striking blue hood and colour-coordinated bandages, worked stylishly over 1,000m in 1:10.5, the last 600m in 36.7 and the final 400m in 22.4. He maintained the improvement split by split, with the completion furlong taking just 11.03 seconds.
Sungrazer is a son of the champion Deep Impact and has really come into his own in 2018. He won the Sapporo Kinen in August then last start defeated all but Rey de Oro in the Group One Tenno Sho (2000m) at Tokyo on October 28, displaying huge finishing speed on each occasion.
Rey Do Oro is the second-best horse in Japan at the present time, after record-breaking Japan Cup heroine Almond Eye.
In other work news, Singapore visitor Lim’s Cruiser looked the part when cruising a steady 800m in 55.5 on the all-weather track.
Trainer Stephen Gray elected to keep the island republic’s number one sprinter bouncy and fresh, rather than risk dragging the energy out of him with a more serious piece on the turf track.
Japan was back in the trackwork spotlight later in the morning when global traveller Vivlos worked on the main track. The five-year-old daughter of Deep Impact did her work effortlessly, clocking 1:07.9 for the 1,000m, the last 400m in 22.6 and the final 200m in 11.02.
Vivlos has travelled before and gave Japan a famous win in the Dubai Turf (Group One, 1,800m) at Meydan in March last year. Moreira rode the mare on that occasion but William Buick will be the man in the plate for Sunday’s Hong Kong Mile.
Another high-class mare, Deirdre, followed Vivlos around under the guidance of Lemaire at a respectful distance of 12 lengths. The four-year-old arrives in winning form, with Group-level victories at Sapporo and Tokyo at her last two appearances.