KYODO – Race-favorite Inti ran away with an undisputed victory on Sunday at the February Stakes, while Nanako Fujita became the first female Japan Racing Association jockey to compete in a Grade 1 race.
Steered by veteran jockey Yutaka Take, Inti pulled into an early lead right out of the stall at Tokyo Racecourse, and remained ahead for the rest of the 1,600-meter dirt race.
The five-year-old horse crossed the line in 1 minute, 35.6 seconds in his G1 debut, a neck ahead of his only challenger, second-favorite Gold Dream ridden by Christophe Lemaire. Yuranoto finished third a further four lengths behind.
“The start went well, I looked at what was around me and decided to go for the lead,” Take said. “I had great rhythm throughout and the pace was great. The race went the way we hoped it would.”
The 49-year-old Take claimed his fifth February Stakes trophy and first G1 win since the 2017 Arima Kinen. Inti earned his seventh straight victory and improved to seven wins in eight races, while trainer Kenji Nonaka also claimed his first G1 race.
“I’ve been expecting a lot from this horse since I rode it for the first time last summer,” Take said. “I’m glad that it became what it is now. It still has a lot of potential.”
In the year’s first G1 race, Fujita made her top-tier debut and wrote her name in the JRA history books riding American-born Copano Kicking, who was coming off a four-race winning streak.
The 21-year-old, who holds the JRA record for most wins by a female jockey, got caught behind the 14-horse pack but steered Copano Kicking around to a fifth-place finish in their first G1 appearances. A crowd of over 60,000 turned out to witness the historic achievement.
“That was cheering that I’ve never experienced before,” Fujita said. “I was straining myself a little in the first half of the race, but after I got behind the horse, he settled down. I managed to have a good ride and gained some confidence.”
Fujita became the seventh female jockey to race under the JRA after obtaining her license in 2016, and is the only female rider currently in competition. Her fifth-place result Sunday is her best over 11 graded races.
Junko Hosoe, a former jockey, praised Fujita for handling the 4-year-old gelding so well on the big stage.
“She took the corners smoothly, and I couldn’t believe it was her first time riding in a G1 race. I think her various experiences will take her into the future,” Hosoe said.
Take, who earned his 76th G1 victory, said he was also impressed by Fujita’s performance and admitted feeling put to the challenge by the young rider.
“It’s something to reach (G1). I think fifth is a solid result,” Take said. “Thanks to her, I got fired up. I didn’t want to have only finished second if she won.”
The JRA revealed that 415 enthusiastic fans had lined up Saturday evening to see Fujita in her G1 debut, nearly doubling the 219 at last year’s race.
The association also reported sales of over ¥15 billion (about $135 million), up 117.2 percent from the previous year, as well as a 121.8 percent increase in attendance.
Third-favorite Omega Perfume, ridden by Mirco Demuro, finished tenth, while last year’s winner Nonkono Yume was 13th.