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Monday, May 28, 2007

Vodka knocks out Derby competition

Staff writer

She's strong stuff, that Vodka! Incredulous fans were reeling Sunday as a filly named Vodka delivered a knockout punch to capture the Nippon Derby by a jaw-dropping 3 lengths. Putting the boys firmly in their place, Vodka, the first filly to run in the Derby in 11 years, became the first filly in 64 years to win it.

News photo
Jockey Hirofumi Shii reacts after his horse Vodka wins the 74th Nippon Derby on Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse. KYODO PHOTO

Disbelief and awe swept over the crowd as Vodka pulled out with 400 meters to go, swept forward and powered decidedly into the lead with a dozen strides left to the finish. The rest of the 18-strong field appeared to have lost its equilibrium as the daughter of 2002 Derby winner Tanino Gimlet went unchallenged to the line. Asakusa Kings, who had led the race from the gate, took second place, with Admire Aura in third a length and three-quarters later.

Overwhelming race favorite Fusaichi Ho O finished off the board in seventh place, while Satsukisho winner and race second pick Victory saw his chances at the triple crown disappear in ninth place.

Winning jockey Hirofumi Shii appeared barely able to hide his own disbelief at the win. Stroking the filly's neck repeatedly, he rode slowly back to the stands, where he stopped and doffed his helmet to bow to the Crown Prince, watching from above.

Breaking well from the No. 3 gate, Shii had been able to give race third choice Vodka a tight run on the rail midfield. "Being a filly, I thought she may be nervous and she was quite agitated but we were able to stay in and save ground," Shii explained. "She felt good and coming into the stretch I thought we had a chance."

Shii's memory of the final stages were a blur, he admitted. "After I pulled out all I could do was push for the finish."

Favorite Fusaichi Ho O, who had attracted close to half of the betting pool, failed to bring his flashy owner, Fusao Sekiguchi, his second Derby win. Veteran jockey Katsumi Ando said he had felt comfortable with an aggressive plan and had held his mount midfield.

"I'd thought he'd show good acceleration but when I gave him the go sign at the turn for home there was no response."

The win of the Derby was the first for Shii, as it was for globe-trotting trainer Katsuhiko Sumii.

"I could retire right now," Shii, 34, said with elation. "This is just such an honor."

Shii indicated that plans to take Vodka abroad were likely.

Vodka's winning time over the 2,400 meters of fast turf was 2 minutes 24.5 seconds. Bred in Hokkaido at Country Bokujo and owned by Yuzo Tanimizu, she has now won five of her seven starts and has amassed close to 366.5 million yen in earnings. The Derby win alone was worth 150 million yen.

The Derby saw over 131,000 people, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a host of celebrities, make their way to Tokyo Race Course Sunday. Some 30.8 billion yen was wagered on the Derby alone.

Vodka returned 1,050 yen on a 100 yen wager. The exact 3-16 was worth 97,890 yen, the trifecta 3-16-14 returned over 2.155 million yen.

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