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Monday, June 2, 2008

Deep Sky wins Derby after powerful push

Staff writer

When good things finally come your way they often just keep on coming. Such proved the case for jockey Hirofumi Shii Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse.

The 35-year-old Shii, who, aboard Vodka, captured his first Derby on his 11th try last year, brought Deep Sky up the long Tokyo stretch with the same heady show of strength to win the coveted classic two years running.

Longshot Smile Jack, hugging the rail in the straight, took the lead from the top of the slope and looked to be holding his ground with no serious challengers. That was, until a bid on the far outside shot Deep Sky impressively forward enough to overtake some five horses from the 200-meter mark and catch and pass Smile Jack three strides out.

Smile Jack finished in second place 1 3/4 lengths behind Deep Sky, with sixth pick Black Shell in third three-fourths of a length later. Race second choice Meiner Charles and fifth pick Rainbow Pegasus made it to the board in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Yet another winner in this year's slew of Agnes Tachyon's fleet-footed offspring, Deep Sky covered the 2,400 meters of turf in 2 minutes 26.7 seconds, rocketing over the final 600 meters in a blistering 34.2 seconds. His Derby victory was all the more impressive considering Deep Sky came to the Derby, peculiarly, off a win in the May 11 NHK Mile Cup.

While its odd to take a colt from the mile to a classic distance so quickly, fans had nonetheless boosted him to race-favorite status in a Derby field with no particular standout after injuries sidelined Satsukisho winner Captain Thule.

Trainer Mitsugu Kon said he was looking at how the colt did in the NHK Mile to see if Deep Sky could take on the Derby successfully. In that race, coming from behind with a charge that held solid up the over 520-meter-long Fuchu homestretch, Deep Sky apparently looked to have what it took. And Sunday, with clear skies and seasonal temperatures bringing over 124,000 fans to the Tokyo venue, he had it again, answering expectations to a deafening roar of approval at the finish line.

The back-to-back Derby victory was for rider Shii, "just the greatest joy."

Black Shell, with Yutaka Take, up, was the horse Shii considered his biggest rival.

"I had my eye on Yutaka's horse. If he went I planned to hold back. At the first turn he moved, so I hung back."

The ground also played a role in Deep Sky's ride. With rain all day Saturday, races Sunday started over soft ground, but the fast-draining Tokyo course improved to only slightly yielding by midday, and was fast by the Derby's 3:40 p.m. post time.

"The ground got better throughout the day, but the turf was badly torn up between the beginning of the final turn and going into the stretch. My horse felt good so I moved out," Shii explained.

That move may have clinched the win for Deep Sky, not only because of the turf but because of traffic on the inside, a factor that definitely worked against Take and Black Shell. As Black Shell on the rail entered the bend from the backstretch, Monte Kris cut ahead and into his path, forcing Take to pull up sharply.

Shii, on the other hand, moved to the far outside for a clear run "with a lot of horse" and powered home.

"He felt really good, I think the racing gods were smiling on me today," Shii said. "Frankly, I had my doubts going into the race, but then thought we could do it when I realized how good he felt. To expect any more of him," Shii said, "would be to bring down bad luck upon us."

Trainer Kon, feeling like he "was on a cloud," opened his stable only eight years ago. He was also frank when he said, "I didn't think that for my stable the Derby was in our reach."

Deep Sky, however, has broadened horizons and brought new dreams, including dreams of distant lands. Kon indicated he felt the colt was good enough to take on the competition overseas. Shii expressed his hope that all would go well for the colt in the coming months and, he said laughing, "I hope they won't change riders!"

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