'We Still Don't Know How Good She Is': Japan's Triple Tiara Winner Liberty Island Heads to Dubai

Mitsumasa Nakauchida at the Arqana yearling sales in Deauville | Scoop Dyga

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Back in 2000, the amateur rider Mr Mitsumasa Nakauchida rode the first of what would be two eventual winners from just 10 rides on the Flat in Britain, following three appearances in Irish bumpers a couple of years earlier. 

Having left Japan at the age of 16 to study initially in Ireland, the young would-be jockey had just turned 22 at the time of his first victory for Richard Hannon aboard Dolphinelle (Ire), beating Eve Johnson Houghton, on her father's Corn Dolly (Ire), by a head. 

That was half a lifetime ago for Nakauchida, who, 21 years later was crowned champion trainer in Japan. A year after that he took charge of the filly who will take some beating in the race to be his horse of a lifetime. Liberty Island (Jpn) (Duramente {Jpn}) wasn't just the best filly in Japan last year, she was the top-rated three-year-old filly in the world on a mark of 121, and she is set to head a star-studded cast on Dubai World Cup night on March 30.

Bred by Northern Farm and campaigned in the colours of Sunday Racing, she has amassed four Grade 1 victories from only seven lifetime starts. At two, Liberty Island won the GI Hanshin Juvenile Fillies before returning the following April to sail through the Fillies' Triple Crown of the Oka Sho, Yushun Himba and Shuka Sho. Only one horse could get the better of her last year, and that was the mighty Equinox (Jpn) (Kitasan Black {Jpn}), to whom she finished second in the Japan Cup. Next, she will aim to emulate his international smash and grab on the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic.

Liberty Island is on course for the Dubai Sheema Classic | Scoop Dyga

We've seen plenty of Japanese trainers at the top meetings around the world over the years. Nakauchida is one who won't be calling on the excellent translating skills of Naohiro Goda or Mariko Seki as he is a fluent English speaker, having completed a thorough grounding in international racing since flying the nest at such a tender age. His list of former bosses reads like's a who's who of the Turf and includes Richard Hannon, Criquette Head and Bobby Frankel. 

“As a student I wanted to learn equine science at college or university in Europe and I decided to go to Ireland first,” says Nakauchida, who also rode out for trainer JJ Lennon in Ireland and later for Sylvester Kirk in the UK. “Then I found a course in Witney in England which specialised in Thoroughbreds. It's thanks to my parents for letting me do that.”

His parents' way of life had no doubt ignited the flame as Nakauchida was born at Shigaraki Farm, a pre-training yard run by his father Katsuzi and based close to the JRA's famous Ritto training centre where he is now based.

After eventually returning to Japan and initially assisting Mitsuru Hashida, Nakauchida started training in his own right in 2014 and, now 45, is a permanent fixture in the JRA's list of top ten trainers. Liberty Island could yet bring his name and talents to even wider prominence. 

“It's such an honour to have a horse like her,” he says. “Her racetrack record is incredible. She's just a natural in her races and she has such talent. It's a pleasure to have her in my stable.

“After the Japan Cup she had a little rest and she was actually tired after the race so it took her a little while to recover. After that she bounced back and she did quite well during the winter. She looks much stronger now and she looks like she is starting to fill out.”

Liberty Island, a product of the mating between dual Japanese Classic winner Duramente, who died woefully young at the age of just nine, and champion Australian filly Yankee Rose (Aus) (All American {Aus}), will travel to Dubai 10 days prior to what will be her 2024 debut. She follows in the footsteps of the great Japanese fillies Gentildonna (Jpn) and Almond Eye (Jpn), both of whom were crowned Horse of the Year in their native country. The Sheema Classic has been a happy hunting ground for Japanese raiders, with the fourth running in 2001 going to Stay Gold (Jpn). Since then Heart's Cry (Jpn), Gentildonna, Shahryar (Jpn) and Equinox have all joined the roll of honour. 

Liberty Island will be the red-hot favourite to bring up a third consecutive win for Japan in the mile-and-a-half contest and, should she prevail, she would become the first major international winner for her trainer. 

“Considering the international racing programme, we look throughout the year to choose which horses we can take to Dubai or Saudi or Europe, even Hong Kong and Australia. All around the world there are great races and I am always looking for an opportunity to run in them,” he says.

Nakauchida was represented in Dubai and Hong Kong last year by the Grade 1 winner Serifos (Jpn) (Daiwa Major {Jpn}), and he came close in Sha Tin's G1 FWD QEII Cup with Prognosis (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}), who was runner-up to Romantic Warrior (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}). He also managed to call in on family when represented at Royal Ascot in 2022 by Grenadier Guards (Jpn) (Frankel {GB}), who was stabled in Newmarket with his brother-in-law Roger Varian. Nakauchida and Varian are married to the sisters Yoko and Hanako (née Sonobe) respectively.

Through his experience working for trainers in Britain, Ireland, France and America, Nakauchida has accrued vital knowledge of the aspects of different racecourses and racing styles.

“That's why I can't take anything and everything overseas,” he says. “I have to think very carefully. You cannot take light-footed horses to Europe. You have to think of the suitable track for each horse.

“We are planning to take Prognosis to Hong Kong this year again. He likes Sha Tin and performs well there. We tried to run Serifos in Dubai and Hong Kong but we didn't get the result we wanted so, this is another good example. He's good in Japan, he's well built and a muscular horse, and you'd think he would run well overseas but we tried and it didn't work. So we will concentrate on Japan for him this spring.”

In the past, Nakauchida has spoken of having to relearn about training on his return to Japan, and he outlines the differences between his overseas experience, were he recalls “every person was good to me”,  and the way he now operates back at home, where he has 20 boxes at Ritto.

“The whole system in Japan is different to any other country,” he says. “Each trainer is allocated a certain number of boxes in the training centre but you obviously have more horses than the number of stables, so we shuffle the horses around a lot, which is quite different. The racing style is different too. [The going is] like concrete here and the racing time is different, much faster than any other country. You have to jump off well, settle down, then you have to finish strong. Even the top level of races, they jump off fast and then there is no slowing down in the middle part of the race, but then you still need to quicken at the end. The races are very tough.”

On the home front this year his main Classic hopes appear to rest on Queen's Walk (Jpn) (Kizuna {Jpn}), the winner of last month's G3 Daily Hai Queen Cup, whose brother, the aforementioned Grenadier Guards, won the G1 Asahi Hai Futurity for the stable in 2020. The latter has just commenced his first covering season at Shadai Stallion Station. Their dam is the GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Wavell Avenue (Harlington).

“We are lucky to have a filly going to the Classics this year,” says Nakauchida. “She is a half-sister to Grenadier Guards, who has just become a stallion this year. We really liked him and took him to Royal Ascot. Actually it was the other way round: he took us to Royal Ascot. That's the way I look at it.”

Now it is the turn of Liberty Island to take her trainer and owners to Meydan for Dubai's biggest meeting of the year. Whether that will be her only overseas trip of 2024 is yet to be decided. 

He says, “With Liberty Island we still don't know how good she is. So we will just see how she performs in Dubai against the top international horses, then she will probably open the door for other options. It's nice to be in this position.”

 

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