While American eyes will be fixed on Pimlico this weekend for the 137th Preakness, across the pond in Japan, another classic race will capture the attention of the locals: Sunday marks the 73rd running of the Japanese Oaks, and 18 fillies will line up for the international G1 event.
One of those fillies is Midsummer Fair, a homebred for Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Japan division.
Sheikh Mohammed has made great strides in the racing industry since investing in his first thoroughbreds in the 1970s. His multinational Darley empire has achieved success with satellite operations on four different continents, and last month Midsummer Fair helped Darley reach an important milestone when she became the first group-level stakes winner owned and bred by Sheikh Mohammed in Japan.
Midsummer Fair recorded the important victory in the April 22 Flora Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse, improving her record to three wins from five starts.
The Darley homebred certainly has the pedigree to reach classic stature on Sunday. She is by Tanino Gimlet, who is best known as the sire of the brilliant filly Vodka, winner of the 2007 Japanese Derby and 2009 Japan Cup and Yasuda Kinen (all G1). Her dam is Strawberry Fair, a daughter of Kingmambo and American champion filly Storm Song.
Midsummer Fair is the product of the persistence and careful planning of her owner. Sheikh Mohammed started his foray into the Japanese industry more than 10 years ago. After basing a handful of mares in Japan in the late 1990s to be covered by Sunday Silence, the ruler of Dubai decided to keep a few two-year-olds to race in that country in 2002 on the National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit. The NAR carries less prestige and prize money than the celebrated Japan Racing Association (JRA) circuit, but requires a licence that had never before been issued to foreigners. The JRA offers a rich racing program, and authorities are not keen to see their money go offshore.
So Sheikh Mohammed set out to reaffirm his intentions to support and help grow the Japanese industry. While racing horses in the NAR, he continued to be active at public auctions, and also established the Darley Japan stallion station and associated stud farms. During this time, he bred G1 winner Danon Chantilly. He also won the Japan Cup, an international G1 open to foreign competitors, in 1996 and 2007 with Singspiel and Admire Moon. Sheikh Mohammed’s efforts came to fruition in 2009 when he became the first non-Japanese to earn a JRA licence. The licence allows horses to compete in the JRA under the name of Sheikh Mohammed as well as his wife Princess Haya and his son, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed.
Today, Darley Japan numbers six farms, 130 mares, and stands seven stallions, including Admire Moon, American-raced Pyro and British and American G1 winner Storming Home. In the beginning, the focus was on creating quality, which meant selecting and cultivating a select broodmare band to bring to Japan. Strawberry Fair was one of 50 mares shipped to Japan from the various other Darley satellites in 2007, with about 20 added and the same number culled for the next four years. The Darley Japan broodmare band now stands at 138, with 15 of the original mares still there, including Strawberry Fair.
“We’re now at the mare numbers we want,” said Shane Horan, Group Bloodstock Manager for Darley. “We want to put 100 two-year-olds in training each year, and this is the first year we have over 100 yearlings, and we’re expecting about 120 foals. We’ll sell 15 to 20 of those each year.”
With breeding operations in America, Europe, and Australia, Horan noted that it is sometimes difficult to decide where a mare may be best suited. In the case of Strawberry Fair, she was from a great American pedigree being out of Storm Song, but that mare has thus far been a disappointment as a producer. Banking on the idea that greatness can sometimes skip a generation, and that maybe the bloodlines would enjoy the Japanese soil, the decision was made to bring Strawberry Fair to Japan in foal to Darley stallion Singspiel.
The resulting foal was the winner Sunrise Fair. After producing two non-winners by stallions Marienbard and Fantastic Light, Strawberry Fair struck gold with Midsummer Fair in 2009.
Although favouritism on Sunday will likely to go Gentildonna, the winner of the chief prep race in the Oka Sho, there is reason to believe in Midsummer Fair. While Gentildonna will be stepping up from 1600 to 2400 metres for the first time in the Oaks, Midsummer Fair has improved with added distance, her last two wins coming over 1800 and 2000 metres respectively. Those close to Darley Japan are enthusiastic about her prospects.
“She was an impressive winner of the Flora Stakes in April and has shown a lot of improvement during 2012,” said Darley Japan Managing Director James Hall. “She is a very professional filly and we hope she can rise to the occasion on Sunday in the Japanese Oaks.”
Connections are hoping that Midsummer Fair’s success is just the beginning for Darley Japan.
“Going forward we are aiming for the progeny of our stallions and Sheikh Mohammed`s racehorses to be a regular part of the top Japanese races. There is a great deal of public interest in racing in this country and we are committed to playing a part in the future development,” said Hall.
Strawberry Fair, now one of the gems of the Darley broodmare band, produced a filly by Darley Australia shuttler Commands earlier this year, and she will be covered by Admire Moon this year.
Darley is also set to have a runner in next weekend’s G1 Japanese Derby, in the form of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed’s Snowdon, a son of Admire Moon from the Lemon Drop Kid mare Snowlynx. Another potential runner of American interest in that race is Spielberg, a two-time winner by Deep Impact out of the Lycius mare Princess Oliva. You may recognize that mare as the dam of Flower Alley, sire of Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another. Could Flower Alley’s brother win a Derby on another continent? Tune in next weekend to find out.
For more information on Japanese racing, including previews and past performances for the Derby and Oaks, visit http://japanracing.jp/en/index.html.
-- Kelsey Riley is a second year trainee on the Darley Flying Start course. She will join the TDN staff in July.