Even the coolest racing fan, the most laid-back racing fan, even fans who are super athletes with resting heartbeats under 40 bpm, would have gotten a tremendous adrenaline rush and a workout watching the 70th running of the Oaks.
In it, Buena Vista gave new dimension to the word “thrilling” as she came from last position to edge Red Desire at the wire in a heart-pounding finish.
Buena Vista had, from the start, been the horse to beat. The daughter of Special Week was coming off her fourth straight win, four out of a total five starts. Wins included two group 1s, the Juvenile Fillies and the Okasho, Japan’s equivalent of the 1,000 Guineas. Considered a shoo-in for her second jewel in the fillies’ Triple Crown, the slightly built dark bay went to the Oaks gate Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse with nearly 58 percent of all bets to win amid a lineup of 18 of Japan’s best 3-year-old fillies. The Okasho runnerup, Red Desire, was a far second choice.
The Oaks field was reduced to 17 after Wide Sapphire dumped her rider in the preliminaries, took a few laps on her own and was deemed too tired too race. The Oaks, nonetheless, got off to a punctual 3:40 p.m. start with a good break by all.
Viva Vodka took the lead, widening it by three lengths down the backstretch followed by Delicate Piece as Buena Vista ambled along second from last, then last around the final bend. The stands were aghast. Though she characteristically came from behind, Buena Vista’s past four races were all at the mile, not the classic 2,400 meters of the Oaks. Had rider Katsumi Andoh gotten too cocky? Was something wrong?
Into the straight, Andoh seemed to hesitate on the rail, then moved Buena Vista to the outside for an open run and gave the signal. That signal would have been perhaps . . . to fly, as flight seemed to be the only way the filly could make the top at this point. But possessing the footwork of a dynamo that makes up for her small stature, Buena Vista shot forward and gained solidly. With still a furlong to go, and Red Desire at least five lengths ahead, the collective pulse rate at Fuchu skyrocketed.
“I thought she wouldn’t make it,” said trainer Hiroyoshi Matsuda. “I thought Andoh was going to go from closer to the pace,” he said, shaking his head. “But that’s the rider’s choice, what he does.”
Andoh, though, was feeling none too confident.
“I thought I’d blown it,” he said. “I hesitated whether to go inside or out coming into the straight and that cost me a stride,” he said.
“The outside just wasn’t looking fast today, but I went for it after all. (Buena Vista) really opens up when you give her the go-ahead and I didn’t want to risk having to pull her up. I took the safe route,” he added.
The “safe route” meant his horse needed to cover the last 600 meters of the race in a mere 33.6 seconds.
“It was exhausting to watch,” said the 63-year-old Matsuda and agreed it had been bad for his heart. The stands let out an audible sigh of relief at the finish and a unanimous cheer as the cameras panned to Buena Vista and Andoh on the huge infield screen. Andoh moved onto the dirt course to leave the racetrack without a victory lap for the fans, but then returned to the turf.
“I wasn’t sure if we’d won or not,” he said later.
Red Desire’s rider Hirofumi Shii suggested they ride back together, but a track worker yelled to Andoh that he looked to have won. Coming slowly back to the grandstand, Andoh said, “I saw my number go up on the screen and was overcome with relief.”
His number? Seven, a very lucky seven.