It is 19 years since O’Brien first struck International gold with the mighty Giant’s Causeway (2000) – and he has since added to his tally with Duke Of Marmalade (2008), Rip Van Winkle (2010), Declaration Of War (2013) and Australia (2014).
Having rounded off his juvenile campaign with victory in the Beresford Stakes, Japan spent the winter months towards the top of ante-posts lists for the premier Classic at Epsom in early June – but those ambitions were dented after he could finish only fourth to Telecaster in the Dante in May.
However, he has made giant strides in the subsequent three months since that reappearance – finishing a half-length third at Epsom before dominating his rivals in the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and breaking his Group One duck in the Grand Prix de Paris.
Taking on his elders for the first time on the Knavesmire, Japan was a 5-1 shot in the hands of Ryan Moore, with Sir Michael Stoute’s proven top-notcher Crystal Ocean favourite off the back of his narrow defeat to the brilliant Enable in a King George for the ages at Ascot.
Crystal Ocean battled his way to the front inside the final two furlongs under James Doyle, but despite displaying his trademark tenacity, Japan more than matched him to win a thrilling duel by a head. Elarqam ran with great credit for Middleham’s Mark Johnston to finish third.
O’Brien, who saddles Magical in today’s Yorkshire Oaks, said: “Ryan was over the moon with him, he’s got better and better. We saw he got a mile-and-a-half and we didn’t want to bottom him today, which is why we came back to a mile-and-a-quarter with the autumn coming.
“We couldn’t be happier and the team back home have done a magnificent job.
“He had an easy race in Longchamp, it was a steadily-run race and he quickened and got to the front. It was very easy for him and we knew he wouldn’t go and win by far.
“He’s a lovely, relaxed horse with loads of class. The first time he showed us that real class was when he won the Beresford when he beat two of ours which we knew were good horses.
“We rushed him to get back ready for the Dante, but every rung has been a step up. The three-year-olds are better than anyone thinks. The King George was a bit of a disaster with the soft ground and it didn’t work, but that wasn’t a true reading of the three-year-old form.”
Moore is better placed than most to assess the strength of the form, having steered Crystal Ocean to six of his eight career victories.
“We had a lovely trip. He (Japan) is a very straightforward horse and all he’s done is improve since the Dante,” said the jockey.
“He was a very good two-year-old and he hasn’t put a foot wrong. He’s got better and better and he’s a beautiful horse with a beautiful mind. Hopefully, he’ll keep on progressing.
“He’s beaten a very good, older horse there. I know how good Crystal Ocean is and he’s a very hard horse to get by. I thought it was a superb performance.”
The Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival began with Dakota Gold landing the Sky Bet And Symphony Group Handicap just four days after powering to victory in Ripon’s Great St Wilfrid. The Ayr Gold Cup could be next for the Michael Dods-trained, and Connor Beasley-ridden, victor.
Valdermoro then got up close home to grab the Tattersalls Acomb Stakes for Malton trainer Richard Fahey and jockey Tony Hamilton, sparking hopes of a tilt at next year’s 2000 Guineas after wearing down the well-regarded Harpocrates.
And then Logician staked a strong claim for next month’s St Leger when running out an impressive winner of the Sky Bet Great Voltigeur Stakes.
Trained by John Gosden, he was ridden by Frankie Dettori who carries the hopes of racing when equine superstar Enable lines up in today’s Yorkshire Oaks.
“He did it well, but he’s not the finished article yet. I think with every race he’s improving and I suspect he’ll take another leap forward,” enthused Dettori.
“He’s a nice horse. When you win a trial like this, obviously you’re going to be tempted to have a go (at the Leger), but it’s up to the owner and the trainer. I was impressed.”