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Champagne Color Sparkles in Japan’s NHK Cup

Not much went right for Champagne Color through the first half of the NHK Mile Cup (G1) May 7 at Tokyo Racecourse, but the Duramente  colt more than made up for that in the final furlongs, rolling by rivals to win by a head.

Umbrail was gaining smartly outside the winner through the final yards before coming up short and Obamburumai was third. Carro Veloce, the lukewarm favorite on a gloomy, rainy day, was a well-defeated fifth.

The NHK Mile was established in a 1996 reorganization to provide a middle-distance alternative for 3-year-olds unlikely to thrive in the Japanese Classics. It has served as a springboard for the likes of previous winners King Kamehameha , El Condor Pasa, and Kurofune. Admire Mars won in 2019 and went on to claim the Longines Hong Kong Mile (G1) in December of the same season.

Fans who braved the rain didn’t give Champagne Color much of a chance to join that elite company, sending him off at odds north of 22-1. And the colt, bred by his owner, Yoichi Aoyama and trained by Tsuyoshi Tanaka, had to go to Plan B to get the job done.

Next-last out of the gate, he raced near the back of the 17-horse field into the sweeping stretch turn. Heading up the hill, jockey Hiroyuki Uchida got Champagne Color into the clear and found another gear. He was in contention 200 meters out, well in front inside the 100 meters, and holding on rather desperately at the end.

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That’s not how Tanaka and Uchida drew up the game plan.

“The plan,” Uchida said, “was to keep him in about fifth to sixth from the pace. But the competition to position him forwardly was intense and the going was soggy, so I didn’t force him to move up front.

“He came out of the last turn smoothly and responded incredibly well. While waiting for the right moment and watching out for the other runners, I just drove him to the line hoping to reach it first.”

In retrospect, the bettors might have noticed both of Champagne Color’s two previous wins were at Toyko Racecourse and going one mile, including a victory in the Begonia Sho in November of last year. His stock fell after a sixth-place finish at Nakayama in his 3-year-old debut when 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) proved too much, but he rebounded with a good third-place finish in the one-mile New Zealand Trophy (G2) in his final prep for the group 1 challenge.

Uchida cited both the distance and the Tokyo layout as contributing to Champagne Color’s success.

“It’s his third win here at Tokyo,” the jockey said. “He enjoys the wide and spacious course and we’re looking forward to seeing him develop with every race he runs this season.”

Umbrail, one of four fillies in the race, also gave her connections cause for optimism. She is by Lord Kanaloa  out of the Falbrav mare L’Archetto, a full sister to Stelvio, winner of the 2018 Mile Championship (G1). Umbrail finished second in the New Zealand Trophy last month.

The New Zealand Trophy winner, Eeyan, reported ninth in the NHK Mile after saving ground in mid-pack throughout.

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