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Girl power strikes in Japan

Girl power was aiming to strike again at the Japan Cup yesterday evening. This is Japan's most prestigious horse race, and 100,000 fans packed the Tokyo stands to watch their popular favorite, the big black superfilly Vodka, make her 3rd try at beating the boyz. They call her the "Japanese Zenyatta." As with the Breeders Cup Classic, no female horse has ever won this race.

Vodka is so celebrated in Japan, especially with female fans, that pop songs have been written about her, as documented on a YouTube video.

TVG didn't air the Cup till almost 11 p.m. L.A. time. It was a big international field of 18 going 1 1/2 miles over grass. The other notable entry was Breeders Cup winner Conduit from the UK. On her way to the post, amid all the Japanese pomp and fanfares and banner-waving, Vodka was her usual quiet and business-like -- never the entertainer that Zenyatta is.

But out of the gate, her MO is a lot like Zenyatta's. She often breaks slow because she is so big, and settles in towards the rear of the pack. Then, yesterday, under a smart ride by French jockey Christophe Lemaire, she went on like a rocket, and got in front. But the Tokyo track has a long home stretch -- more than 3 furlongs and a little uphill -- and horses often tire on it. Vodka started to flatten out a little, and Oken Bruce Lee launched a late challenge. But his challenge sparked the filly to dig in powerfully, and she kept her nose in front as the 100,000 fans went cardiac.

It's always amazing to see that natural competiveness come out in horses, whether it's a band of them grazing in a pasture or galloping along a racetrack. There is always a pecking order in horse society, and mares are as peckish as stallions and geldings. The lead mare is boss -- often she'll tell a stallion off. Even in a horse race, this pecking order is being thrashed out among a dozen animals that are strangers to each other and churning along tightly bunched at 40 mph, with the horses sometimes deliberately jostling each other if the jockeys allow it (it's a violation of the rules if they do).

Over the last furlong, in the reruns, you could see Vodka giving Bruce Lee the evil eye as he pulls up alongside her -- that look of "you are definitely not going to beat me."

The winner's circle ceremony was extra long, with more pomp and speeches and interviews and a lot of bowing. Like Zenyatta, Vodka has earned her niche in history. After years of campaigning (she's now five), she will be retired to breeding. And she will probably be boss mare in a pasture somewhere.