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Monday, Nov. 3, 2008

Vodka wins tight Emperor's Cup

Staff writer

Vodka, that incredible filly that knocked the boys flat in the '07 Derby and became the first filly to do so in over 60 years, carried a powerful kick again Sunday in the group I fall Emperor's Cup, the 138th running of the Tennosho.

News photo
Cheers!: Jockey Yutaka Take (right) pats Vodka on the nose after the filly won the fall Emperor's Cup on Sunday. KYODO PHOTO

The real punch, however, didn't come until over 10 minutes after she crossed the finish line in a photo finish tieup with Daiwa Scarlet, winner of three group 1 races last year — the classic Okasho, Shukasho and the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Stakes.

It was too close to call. Daiwa Scarlet had gone to the lead from the gate hugging the rail, with Vodka breaking from the No. 14 post and moving in and up to fifth position, not an easy feat in a 2,000-meter course at Tokyo, where the race starts from the pocket in the first bend.

Scarlet held her ground as Vodka moved up slowly from the top of the hill in the stretch.

"She reached down and gave it her all, and that is Vodka," said jockey Yutaka Take, and moved up to catch Scarlet at the wire.

But had she passed her? In the stands, the two names went back and forth, bantered about by hopefuls among the near 123,000 fans who had made their way to Tokyo Racecourse to see the super fillies battle it out with 15 lesser males.

"Vodka." "Scarlet." "Vodka." "Scarlet." The names were spoken quietly, reverently, almost like a prayer.

Take sat atop Vodka waiting on the turf as he expected the decision light to go on at any moment. When it didn't, Take tilted his head, gave a shrug, and the two moved off the track.

Back at the weighing room, the grooms led the two sweat-drenched fillies round and round surrounded by fans, reporters, connections from both sides.

There was no boasting, no predictions. All held their breath. The grooms looked worried, the horses simply tired. Mobile phone cameras tracked the two.

Television cameras were trained on the white board in the weighing room where the numbers would be drawn in black marker. Nearly 15 minutes dragged on.

Finally, the number went up. Fourteen! "It's Vodka!" The word shot out through the crowd and to her groom, who quite literally threw himself at Vodka, wrapping his arms around her neck in a massive bear hug of relief and congratulations, followed by kisses and more hugs of the horse.

Vodka took it all in quietly. the groom, Hiroyuki Nakata, was quite a mess. Of the long wait he said, "My heart was just pounding the whole time."

For rider Take, the emotion was one of relief. Unable to call it as well, he said, "It could have been either way. I really didn't know. I started thinking a dead heat would be OK. But, I was praying."

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