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T.M. Opera caps record year with Arima victory

by Barbara Bayer

FUNABASHI, Chiba Pref. — It was a fitting end to a century. A fitting end to a year. This year’s best horse took the honors from start to finish.

Eight races the favorite, eight races the winner, T.M. Opera O, unbeaten this year, squeezed through a tight spot in the stretch for a photo-finish first place in the year’s grand finale, the Arima Memorial Grand Prix.

Victory in the G1 finale Sunday at Nakayama Racecourse gave the Opera House-sired 4-year-old his sixth grade 1 win of his career. Claiming both Emperor’s Cups, the Takarazuka Memorial, the Japan Cup and the Arima, T.M. Opera O became the first horse to win five G1s in a single year.

Giving the fans a suspenseful few minutes until the decision was in, was Meisho Doto, second by a long nose. Daiwa Texas finished in third 1/2 lengths later. T.M. Opera O covered the 2,500 meters of turf in 2 minutes, 24.1 seconds.

“I’m relieved. It was a tough race,” winning jockey Ryuji Wada admitted. “I couldn’t get the position I wanted at the start and I thought I’d blown it.” Out of the gate Wada was forced to pull up slightly when Meisho Doto moved abruptly in from his outside. T.M. Opera O ended up only three from the back of the 16-strong field, uncharacteristically rearward.

Trainer Ichizo Iwamoto was still shaking his head nearly an hour after the race. “That was a bit too far back for me,” he said he said of their position. “That was one race it wouldn’t have been a surprise if he’d lost.” Iwamoto, a former jockey with close to 600 wins, had never even had a chance to ride in the Arima. “It’s a strange feeling winning it. I never thought it was in the stars.”

In light of the difficulties, the win was a surprise for Wada as well. Usually brimming with confidence, the 23-year-old admitted it was a tough ride.

Maintaining his rear position through the backstretch, T.M. Opera O still had most of the field ahead of him as he turned for home. A wall of horseflesh out front, Wada said he was worried. “I couldn’t move. I wanted to but didn’t want to go wide. In front of the stands I was wondering what to do. I decided to sit tight and wait for an opening. I was praying for one.”

Less than 200 meters before the finish line they got it, a space only slightly wider than a horse. T.M. Opera O went for it and squeezed through.

Gaining to the end, he earned and undoubtedly won the acclaim of all watching, as he passed horse after horse. Wada perhaps best summed it up when he said, “He is so strong, this horse. My role has been one of just keeping out of his way.”

Owner Masatsugu Takezono, to the surprise of many, says he has no interest in taking on the foreign competition overseas, claiming he wants to keep T.M. Opera O, who will be surely voted horse of the year, at home for the Japanese fans.

It was the first win of the Arima Memorial, with a winner’s share worth 180 million yen, for both jockey and trainer. T.M. Opera O has accumulated nearly 1.4 billion yen in 12 wins out of 19 starts. Plans are to keep the Japanese-bred horse in racing for next year.

Over 134,000 fans were on hand for the Arima Kinen. Turnover on the one race alone topped 72 billion yen.