Screen Hero, a horse that had barely been in the picture before the race, managed to grab top billing Sunday with a half length win of the Japan Cup at Tokyo.

Coming in second in the JC 28th running was race favorite Deep Sky, with second pick Vodka in third place a three-quarter length later. Matsurida Gogh, Oken Bruce Lee and Meisho Samson followed in that order.

A crawling slow pace threw a wrench into the race for many, but winning jockey Mirco Demuro of Italy was able to give Screen Hero a smooth ride from the start, breaking from the No. 16 slot and easing his way in to five widths’ off the rail five off the front.

Vodka, on the other hand, fought her jockey on the rail as she, with tongue flapping, pulled her way forward into an unsettled third position.

On her outside was Matsurida Gogh. Shadowing him on his outside was Screen Hero.

“We had decided to mark Gogh as he always gets a nice position,” said the 28-year-old Demuro. “The only thing I had been concerned about was the start, but he broke well and the slow pace meant we could move in and get a good position easily.”

Into the stretch, with horses lined up at the top of the slope 400 meters out, Screen Hero took the lead with some 200 meters left and fought off Deep Sky on his outside.

“All I could think was, my God, just don’t pass me!” Demuro said of Deep Sky.

It was hair-raisingly close to the very end.

“My heart was just pounding until he was over the finish line,” said trainer Yuichi Shikato.

Shikato only opened his stable in March and took over Screen Hero’s charge from retiring trainer Susumu Yano.

Following a broken bone and nearly a year away from the turf, the horse was returned to racing from summer. Four races preceded the Japan Cup, with three different jockeys bringing the 4-year-old home with two wins and two seconds.

Only open class until his last time out, when he won his first group race, a G2, Shikato had been told by each of the jockeys that the horse has potential and can go a lot further.

“With each race he seemed to rise to meet the level of his opponents,” Shikato said.

“But the Japan Cup field had three Derby winners and I wondered if he could rise that far.”

Not only did he rise to their level, he surpassed it, bringing both Shikato, Demuro and owner Teruya Yoshida of the breeding/racing giant Shadai their first wins of the international invitational, worth ¥250 million to the winner.

Demuro said he had been more confident.

“I watched him during work and he is a very competitive horse. When he lines up with other horses, he really battles to stay ahead of them, a very good thing for a racehorse.”

Demuro, who was joined by his wife, Martina, and 11-month-old daughter, Lucrzia, had just arrived in Japan the previous week for a month of riding. He had not ridden work but had studied videos of Screen Hero’s earlier races.

For Demuro himself, he said grinning, “it’s a much better start this year than last time.”

“Last time” referred to 2005 when a spill during racing the day before the Japan Cup resulted in a broken collarbone, knocking him out of the next day’s running, during which he had been planning to ride Cosmo Bulk, who finished a far last this year in his fifth Japan Cup.

In a disappointing repeat of last year, the foreign-based competitors failed miserably. Marsh Side from the U.S. was scratched on Saturday after developing a fever.

Purple Moon topped the remaining three, all from the U.K., in ninth place, followed by Sixties Icon in 13th place and Papal Bull in 14th.

The Grass Wonder-sired Screen Hero, out of the Sunday Silence mare Running Heroine, bested what had been touted as some of the toughest competition in recent Japan Cup history.

In addition to the three Derby winners were six other group 1 champions. Ninth choice at the windows, Screen Hero returned a neat ¥4,100 on a ¥100 wager. The exacta 16-9 paid ¥25,160 on ¥100.

Screen Hero, bred at Shadai Farm in Chitose, Hokkaido, clocked 2 minutes 25.5 seconds over 2,400 meters of fast turf. The race, run on a picture-perfect, blue-skied Sunday afternoon, was attended by nearly 108,000 people and brought the Japan Racing Association a turnover of nearly ¥31.3 billion, 22 billion of which were bet on the Japan Cup alone.

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