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Horse Racing

February Stakes Preview: A Top-Level Racing Trial on Dirt at Tokyo Racecourse

Known as the February Handicap when it was first run in 1984 as a Grade 3 race, the February Stakes was gradually elevated in class, becoming a G1 race in 1997.

After a great year for Japanese horse racing on the world stage in 2023, the February Stakes, the first Japan Racing Association Grade 1 race of 2024, will be run on Sunday, February 18 at Tokyo Racecourse. 

The February Stakes is one of two top-level JRA dirt races on the yearly calendar, with the Champions Cup at Chukyo in December being the other.

Sunday's race is run over a mile, and is for 4-year-olds and up. It was originally known as the February Handicap when it was first run in 1984 as a Grade 3 race. But it has gradually been elevated in class, and it became a Grade 1 in 1997, when it was also opened to runners from overseas. 

The American-trained Shirl's Speight took on the race in 2023, but this year sees no challengers from other countries.

Despite a number of Japan's top dirt horses (Lemon Pop and Ushba Tesoro to name just a couple) heading to Saudi Arabia to take on the Grade 1 Saudi Cup on February 24, there have been 27 early nominations for the 41st running of the February Stakes. 

To a large extent, prize money earned will decide which horses get a start. A maximum of 16 runners will line up on the day of the race, and the set weight to be carried is 58 kg, with a 2-kg allowance for fillies and mares. 

There looks to be a strong challenge from National Association of Racing (local government racing) runners this year, together with horses that usually run in turf races switching to dirt, so an interesting race looks assured. It should be remembered that a mile dirt race at Tokyo starts on the turf track.

Background on the February Stakes

In the February Stakes, first favorites have enjoyed a 50% win-strike rate in the past 10 years, and 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds have had the best record in the race during that time with four wins apiece.

Two-time February Stakes winner Cafe Pharoah set the record time for the race in 2022, when he triumphed in a time of 1 minute, 33.8 seconds in 2022. 

Cafe Pharoah
Cafe Pharoah, piloted by Yuichi Fukunaga, triumphs in the February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse on February 20, 2022. (ⓒSANKEI)

The winner's check for the 2024 race is ¥120 JPY million (around $800,000 USD) out of a total purse of close to ¥260 million JPY (more than $1.7 million USD).

There have been a couple of races leading up to Sunday's race: the Grade 2 Tokai TV Hai Tokai Stakes (1,800 meters at Kyoto) and the Grade 3 Negishi Stakes (1,400 meters at Tokyo). Both races were held in January.

The February Stakes, which has been a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series race since 2016, will be Race 11 on the Sunday card at Tokyo, with a post time locally of 3:40 PM. 

Here's a look at some of the runners expected to be in the lineup.

February Stakes
Wilson Tesoro (right) and an unidentified horse work out at the JRA Miho Training Center on February 14 in Miho, Ibaraki Prefecture. (ⒸSANKEI)

Wilson Tesoro Had Back-to-Back Runner-Up Finishes in Last Two Races

Wilson Tesoro, the 5-year-old by Kitasan Black, must have a good chance on the form of his last two races. He finished second to Lemon Pop in the 2023 Grade 1 Champions Cup on December 3. And he also placed second to Ushba Tesoro in the last big dirt race of 2023, the Grade 1 Tokyo Daishoten, on December 29. 

“He drew widest in his last race and was the last to load, but he got off to a good start," assistant trainer Masahiro Yokota said of Wilson Tesoro. "And with no other horse wanting to lead, he went to the front. He ran at his own pace, but was eventually beaten by one of the world's top horses. 

"So it was a good race for him when you consider this, and he also beat home some other good horses."

The assistant trainer added, "Everything's gone smoothly with him since he returned to the stable after a break at the farm." 

Kohei Matsuyama gets the ride on Wilson Tesoro, and it will be the first time for him to ride the horse.

February Stakes
Wilson Tesoro (center) and Dura Erede (left) finish second and third, respectively, to Lemon Pop in the 1,800-meter Champions Cup on December 3, 2023, at Chukyo Racecourse in Toyoake, Aichi Prefecture. Dura Erede and Wilson Tesoro will make their 2024 debuts in the February Stakes. (ⒸSANKEI)

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Dura Erede Set for 2024 Racing Debut

It has been an interesting career so far for 4-year-old Dura Erede, and in recent races, he's been showing that he's possibly better on dirt than he is on turf. The February Stakes will be his first race of 2024, but hopes are high that he can run a good race.

“He stumbled slightly at the start last time [in the Tokyo Daishoten], and he didn't pick up so well between the third and fourth corners," trainer Manabu Ikezoe said.

Ikezoe then said, "He was perhaps still a little tired after his run in the Champions Cup. Since being back at the stable, we've just confirmed that his condition is good. It will be his first time over a mile, so we'll have to see what he can do."

Read the rest of this article about the February Stakes as well as the Japanese horses in contention on JRA News.

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Author: JRA News

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