June 23, 2024

Japan Cup hero Kitasan Black faces Arima Kinen challenge

Kitasan Black turned in a front-running masterpiece in the 2016 Japan Cup (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Coming off an imperious front-running victory in the Japan Cup (G1), Kitasan Black aims to follow up in the Arima Kinen (G1) at Nakayama on Christmas Day. But the 2,500-meter (about 1 9/16-mile) test serves up a fascinating clash of generations, with star sophomore Satono Diamond ready to step up to the plate against his elders.

The Arima Kinen, the “Grand Prix,” is an immensely popular event in which racing fans have a say in the composition of the field. When the votes were tallied, Kitasan Black was the leading candidate with more than 130,000 ballots in his favor.

It’s no wonder that Kitasan Black is such a fan favorite, as a high-class horse with courage to equal his cruising speed. He’s also owned by well-known Japanese singer Saburo Kitajima, who serenades the crowds on track after his wins.

Kitasan Black was one of the top three-year-olds of 2015, when battling to a photo-finish verdict in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) and finishing a close third to Gold Actor and Sounds of Earth in last December’s Arima Kinen. Even better this term, Kitasan Black has added two more majors to his resume. He was all heart to prevail in the about two-mile Tenno Sho Spring (G1), and saved his career best for a 2 1/2-length wire job over Sounds of Earth in the November 27 Japan Cup. Kitasan Black made the most of his rail draw last time, and he’s landed in post 1 again on Sunday with regular rider Yutaka Take.

Kitasan Black wires Japan Cup under pitch-perfect Take

Connections are expecting another bold show from Kitasan Black.

“First, it’s an honor to train the horse the fans have chosen as their number 1, and I would love to win from that aspect alone,” trainer Hisashi Shimizu said. “Even before his debut, the stride this horse has on him had us thinking he was a Grade 1 performer.

“The horse has developed very well since last year, he’s bigger and stronger. With an incident free run, I think he can confirm his performance last time. I’m not worried about his rivals – I don’t think about that.”

“The horse himself gives me confidence,” Take said. “He’s the type of horse I don’t have any worries about at all.”

If Kitasan Black justifies that confidence, he would become the first to turn the Japan Cup/Arima Kinen double in the same year since the legendary Deep Impact (2006).

The Arima Kinen offers a rematch of the top four from the Japan Cup. Runner-up Sounds of Earth, a Grade 1 bridesmaid throughout his career, may just need a bit of luck for things to fall his way. Also closing rapidly for third was Cheval Grand, who’s been progressive this season. Two starts back, Cheval Grand captured the Copa Republica Argentina (G2) at this trip, and the added ground may help his cause. Gold Actor, a one-paced fourth in the Japan Cup, is another eligible to do better at this distance and around a Nakayama course that suits him. But as the defending champion of the Arima Kinen, he’ll find it’s not easy to repeat. The last to win back-to-back Arima Kinens was Symboli Kris S (2002-03).

Satono Diamond surges clear in the Japanese St Leger (Copyright Japan Racing Association)
Satono Diamond surges clear in the Japanese St Leger (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

The bigger dangers to Kitasan Black all skipped the Japan Cup – chief among them Satono Diamond, whose only career losses came in the first two jewels of the Japanese Triple Crown. The Deep Impact colt is arguably at his peak now, having bolted up in the October 23 renewal of the Japanese St Leger.

Satono Diamond’s regular rider, Christophe Lemaire, is armed with a tactical plan to confront Kitasan Black.

“He’s a great horse, easy to ride, and with so much potential,” Lemaire observed. “I want to win the Arima Kinen. Obviously, Kitasan Black is strong, but I want to make it a match race with him and my horse.”

Trainer Yasutoshi Ikee likewise appreciates the task at hand: “It’s going to be difficult for a three-year-old, but he can surely challenge to be the top here.”

Ikee is triple-handed in the Arima Kinen, with last year’s champion three-year-old filly, Mikki Queen, and veteran Satono Noblesse completing his team of Deep Impact progeny. Mikki Queen, who won two of Japan’s three fillies’ classics in 2015, has performed at a high level in all three starts this season, albeit in minor placings. A rallying third in the November 13 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) in her first start off a six-month holiday, Mikki Queen may be sharper this time. The six-year-old Satono Noblesse, third to Yamakatsu Ace in the Kinko Sho (G2), smacks of a minor award-seeker in this grade.

Deep Impact fields two more prime contenders in the top-class mares Denim and Ruby and Marialite.

Denim and Ruby, who missed narrowly to Gentildonna in the 2013 Japan Cup, was off form in 2014. Rediscovering herself in 2015, she was runner-up to tough older males Gold Ship and Lovely Day, only to be sidelined by injury. Denim and Ruby resurfaced from a 17-month absence and closed for eighth to Yamakatsu Ace in the Kinko Sho. Connections have said the Arima Kinen is her main target, and if she’s knocked off all the rust in time, Denim and Ruby would be a threat at her best.

So is Marialite, except she’s marooned on the far outside post 16. She was handed the same poor draw in last year’s Arima Kinen, where she did well to grab fourth. On form alone, Marialite figures to go close. She upended Duramente and Kitasan Black in the Takarazuka Kinen (G1) in June, and you can forgive her dead-heat sixth in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup last out. The defending champion in that Kyoto feature, Marialite was clobbered on the first turn and fortunate not to unseat her rider.

Rounding out the field are aforementioned Yamakatsu Ace, last seen landing the Kinko Sho and two-for-two at Nakayama; Albert, who cuts back in distance off his successful title defense in the about 2 1/4-mile Stayers S. (G2) at this track; the improving Maltese Apogee, fresh off a new career high in the Fukushima Kinen (G3), untried over this far a trip, but likely to go forward with Kitasan Black early; Admire Deus, the 2015 Nikkei Sho (G2) winner over this course and distance, yet unable to earn a Grade 1 placing thus far; and outsiders Mousquetaire, Hit the Target, and Samson’s Pride.