July 13, 2024

Almond Eye sensational again in Shuka Sho for Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown sweep

Almond Eye became the first Japanese Fillies' Triple Crown winner since Gentildonna (c) Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com

Silk Racing Co.’s Almond Eye produced her trademark late flourish to capture Sunday’s $1,964,000 Shuka Sho (G1) at Kyoto, and in the process, complete a sweep of Japan’s Fillies’ Triple Crown. The 3-10 favorite had work to do from far back as front-running Mikki Charm kept motoring down the lane, but a final three-furlong blitz in :33.6 propelled Almond Eye to an ultimately comfortable victory.

From the first crop of Japan’s all-time great sprinter Lord Kanaloa, Almond Eye gets a stamina boost from her dam, Fusaichi Pandora, whose signature win came in the 2006 Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup at this course. Fusaichi Pandora, a daughter of Sunday Silence and granddaughter of blue hen Sex Appeal, was twice classic-placed herself.

Almond Eye has gained the laurels that eluded her dam. The fifth filly to sweep her divisional classics in Japan, she is the first to accomplish the feat since Gentildonna (2012). The prior Fillies’ Triple Crown winner, Apapane (2010), was conditioned by the same trainer as Almond Eye, Sakae Kunieda.

Perfect since a runner-up effort in a Niigata newcomers’ event at two, Almond Eye brought a four-race winning streak into the Shuka Sho. The bay broke her maiden at Tokyo last October, and beat the boys in the January 8 Nikkan Sports Sho Shinzan Kinen (G3), en route to classic glory.

Almond Eye rallied from the back of the pack under a hand ride in the April 8 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1), breezing the metric mile in a stakes-record 1:33.1 at Hanshin. She successfully stretched out to about 1 1/2 miles for the May 20 Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) at Tokyo, where she just missed another stakes record by clocking 2:23.8.

Kunieda planned to freshen his stable star ahead of the third jewel. Heading straight to Kyoto without a prep, Almond Eye had gained weight, but reportedly muscle, and she picked up right where she left off in the spring.

Mikki Charm, a late developer making her black-type debut, controlled the pace throughout. The 14-1 chance had nearly all her rivals at full stretch trying to catch her, except for Almond Eye.

Confidently handled by regular rider Christophe Lemaire, Almond Eye uncorked a devastating late run down the center of the course, reminiscent of her Oka Sho performance. She blew by Mikki Charm to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths, finishing about 1 1/4 miles in 1:58.5.

But Lemaire didn’t find it as straightforward as it looked.

“I was a bit worried today because Almond Eye was rather nervous and highly strung than usual,” the jockey said, “so the start wasn’t that good. Then our path was blocked and we had to go wide, but from there she just showed just how exceptional she was.

“She’s such a fantastic filly and I have to give credit to the trainer and stable staff because it’s so difficult to maintain a horse’s condition at the top of her form throughout the season.

“So becoming a Triple Crown winner isn’t easy even with the best horse.”

Cantabile, winner of the Rose (G2) as her prep last out, posted the next-fastest final sectional in :33.9 to get up for third. Lucky Lilac, the 6-1 second choice who was runner-up in the Oka Sho, did not factor in ninth of 17. Her missing her prep, due to a right hind leg injury, may have told.

According to Racing Post, Almond Eye came down with “mild heatstroke” postrace, but was reportedly in good shape later.

The next logical step would be for Almond Eye to try to emulate Gentildonna in another respect, by conquering older males in the November 25 Japan Cup (G1). But further down the road, international racing fans are eager to see her test her mettle abroad.