06/08/2017 11:16AM

Epicharis has what it takes, both on the track and between the ears

Barbara D. Livingston
Epicharis was treated for lameness on Wednesday, but his connections still are hopeful of making the Belmont.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Around and around the small woodchip walking oval outside Barn 5 on the Belmont Park backstretch, the dark bay, white-blazed horse strode Monday morning. He already had trained, but Epicharis still bristled with energy that occasionally bubbled to the surface. But after a bounce or a shimmy that his rider scarcely heeded, the colt went straight back to his purposeful walk.

Epicharis arrived here from Japan last week to race in the Belmont Stakes. It’s the second year in a row that a Japanese horse has come for the Triple Crown. Last year, Lani finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Preakness, and a very respectable third in the Belmont. It would not be a stretch to call him notorious. Lani was a sex-crazed teenager, yelling brazenly at any filly within scent range. He was reliably erratic in his training and lacked focus and discipline in racing.

It is nearly impossible to imagine Lani placidly walking that woodchip path.

Epicharis? A different sort of beast, with a disposition to match talent that appears to be at least the equal of Lani’s. Lani spent the first part of his races doing Lani things while lagging at the back of the field. Epicharis has speed and the discipline to ration it. In a Belmont lacking the Derby and Preakness winners, and certainly lacking anything like a standout, Epicharis appears to have a real chance to become the first Japanese horse to win an American classic.

“He’s got the ability, and he’s an easy ride,” said Christophe Lemaire, the Japan-based French jockey charged with bringing a Belmont win back to racing-crazed Japan.

Ski Captain finished 14th in the 1995 Kentucky Derby, the first Japanese horse in a Triple Crown race, but in the two decades since, Japanese horses have raised their game. They have won European Group 1 races on turf – and continue a mad quest to capture a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe – and while turf is the more important surface in Japanese racing, dirt horses have begun to proliferate and now race competitively in the Dubai World Cup dirt races in March. Lani won the $2 million UAE Derby there last year, and Epicharis was beaten a nose by Thunder Snow this year.

The UAE Derby might not have shown Epicharis at his very best either. Trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara said Epicharis appeared to be notably fatigued after his race in Dubai, and that the colt might not have shipped especially well into the desert.

“He recovered from the long flight here well – better than Dubai,” Hagiwara said through a translator Tuesday following Epicharis’s only workout here for his start Saturday.

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The workout was timed in a slow 1:06 for five furlongs. Epicharis was only asked to work fast for about three furlongs during the middle of the drill, and the work pleased the colt’s connections. But by Wednesday afternoon, a problem had arisen. Epicharis began favoring his right-front leg, and he was sore enough to be treated intravenously with the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication phenylbutazone early Wednesday evening. Epicharis walked in the barn and did not train Thursday morning, though his connections remained hopeful he could still make the Belmont.

The ailment is a setback, but Hagiwara, 59, who is getting his first taste of international racing, surely never changed his stone-faced countenance. A former groom and assistant trainer, he trains a stable of 55 horses split about down the middle between turf and dirt runners. His résumé includes only one Group 1-winning horse, Logi Universe, who captured the 2009 Japan Derby.

Owners? Epicharis has 400 of those. Epicharis is owned by U. Carrot Farm Co., one of about a dozen extremely popular racing clubs in Japan. For an initial payment and a modest monthly fee, everyday Japanese racing fans can own a piece of a major racehorse. The clubs have been around for more than a decade and have campaigned stars as bright as Orfevre, who might have given Japan its long-sought first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe win had he not planted his feet in the ground after making a clear homestretch lead in 2012.

Epicharis began his career on dirt owing to his being by the Sunday Silence stallion Gold Allure, whose runners struggle on turf but excel on dirt. Gold Allure died this spring, but perhaps not before siring a horse who, as his owners had hoped all along, would prove capable of winning a major international dirt race.

Epicharis blitzed his competition last year at age 2, winning his three starts by a combined 25 lengths while twice racing 1 1/8 miles and once over one mile. He made two starts in races around one left-handed turn but won around multiple tight turns racing right-handed at the Mombetsu course last November.

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His 3-year-old debut came in the one-mile Hyacinth Stakes on Feb. 19 at Tokyo. The Hyacinth is part of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, a Churchill Downs-created two-race series whose leading points earner (based on finishing position) automatically qualifies for the Kentucky Derby. The competition was the best Epicharis had seen, and he was running after a layoff while still being educated in the craft of racing. Still, Epicharis won the race by 1 3/4 lengths over Adirato.

“It was a prep race for Dubai,” said Lemaire, who has been riding in Japan for about two years now and has been aboard Epicharis in all of his starts. “He used to go in front in his last three races, and I wanted him to get some experience on that day. We were behind horses and had to come on the inside, but he made a great move. The horse he beat was a good horse. It was the race I wanted for him in his progression.”

A spot in the Derby awaited. Instead, Epicharis’s connections decided to wait.

“We didn’t have much time between the UAE Derby and Kentucky Derby, so that’s why we came here to try the Belmont Stakes,” Hagiwara said. “He was a little bit tired, so we needed to have time.”

There also exists an incentive to try the third leg of the Triple Crown , a $1 million bonus offered by the New York Racing Association to a Japanese horse who wins the Belmont. The extra cash, though, would mean far less back in Japan than coming home with an American classic winner. Hagiwara said he was merely “honored and excited to have a horse here.”

The Japanese horse here last year finished third with his head in the clouds. Epicharis has his head in the game. He could return home a hero.