Neo Universe, without even a single lash of the whip, landed the 70th Nippon Derby on Sunday by half a length to claim his second title in Japan’s Triple Crown series.
Italian jockey Mirco Demuro, who had also ridden the winner to his Satsukisho victory in April and had traveled to Japan again specifically for the Derby ride, became the first foreign jockey to win the coveted classic.
Third choice Zenno Rob Roy, one of three colts fielded by Japan’s leading trainer Kazuo Fujisawa, was runnerup, with seventh pick That’s the Plenty, over the line 3/4 length later in third place. The Satsukisho runnerup, Sakura President, who went to the gate as second pick in the Derby, disappointed with a seventh-place showing.
Demuro was nearly at a loss for words immediately after the race. “He’s unbelievable. I can’t explain it in words. He’s just too much,” the 24-year-old rider said. “I couldn’t ask any more from this horse. If he did any better he’d be flying.”
Neo Universe clocked 2:28.5 over the 2,400 meters of heavy turf.
“He’s become maturer since the Satsukisho. In the paddock he was so quiet I was surprised and a bit worried,” Demuro admitted. “He used to want to play a lot more.”
The 3-year-old’s maturity coupled with Demuro’s wise, yet gentle touch (“I never use the whip”) proved a winning combination.
Having ridden in four races Sunday before the Derby, Demuro was well-acquainted with the ground as well. Holding Neo Universe rear of midpack on the rail until the final bend, Demuro remained on the inside while most of the 18-strong all-male field went wide.
“It was heavy on the inside and I’d planned to travel out a bit more. But he started to pull and I brought him in to the rail.
“The ground in the homestretch was the same on the inside as on the outside,” Demuro explained.
“When I rounded the bend I had the top picks in my sights and I thought, if these are the ones to beat I can beat them easily.”
With 200 meters to go, Neo Universe easily passed Zenno Rob Roy and That’s the Plenty to take the lead and hold on for the win.
After the win, as he slowly trotted back toward the grandstand aboard the winner, Demuro was overcome with emotion at the sound of the crowd calling his name.
With what must have indeed felt like the whole world in his hands, the young jockey wiped tears from his eyes with his sleeve and reached down again and again to stroke Neo Universe’s neck with affection and gratitude.
As he passed before the stands Demuro doffed his helmet and bowed to the cheering crowd.
The Sunday Silence-sired colt was bred at Shadai Farm in Hokkaido and is owned by Shadai Race Horse.
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