October 22, 2020

Almond Eye the one to beat in Japan Cup

Almond Eye posted a fast time in the Japanese Oaks over the Japan Cup course and distance (c) Japan Racing Association

Already in the discussion for the 2019 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown sweeper Almond Eye aims to boost her candidacy in Sunday’s Japan Cup (G1) at Tokyo. The about 1 1/2-mile turf feature marks her first start versus older males, but such is the confidence behind her that she’s the heavy favorite to extend her record to 6-for-7.

Given the dominance of the home team, successful in the past 12 runnings, it’s not surprising that only two European challengers have made the trek. Aidan O’Brien’s dual classic winner Capri smacks of a potential overlay, while Thundering Blue is in career form but in a tough place to earn a first Grade 1 laurel.

Almond Eye has beaten males before – albeit fellow sophomores in a classic trial, the January 8 Nikkan Sports Sho Shinzan Kinen (G3) at Kyoto. She’s routinely displayed the finishing burst of sire Lord Kanaloa with the distance capacity of dam Fusaichi Pandora. After taking the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1) in a stakes-record 1:33.1 for the metric mile at Hanshin, Almond Eye added the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) in 2:23.8, the second-best clocking ever in the fillies’ classic over the Japan Cup course and distance.

Entering the final jewel, the Shuka Sho (G1), off a layoff by design, Almond Eye was uncharacteristically on edge in the preliminaries but still delivered an electric late charge. She reportedly had a mild case of heatstroke afterward.

Almond Eye became the first since Gentildonna to sweep Japan’s Triple Crown for fillies. She’ll bid to emulate that legend in another respect here, for Gentildonna is the only three-year-old filly to conquer the Japan Cup (2012). Almond Eye is good enough to capitalize on the nine-pound weight break from the older males. The Sakae Kunieda trainee projects a ground-saving trip from the rail before Christophe Lemaire tips her out down the lane.

Cheval Grand, thrice placed to Kitasan Black in Grade 1 events, scored a breakthrough in the 2017 Japan Cup (Photo by Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com)

Defending champion Cheval Grand also has a Gentildonna precedent in mind. She repeated her Japan Cup heroics in 2013, and Cheval Grand hopes to follow her into the record book as just the second two-time winner. Bettors, however, are cool to the idea. Last year, he took advantage of the fact that Kitasan Black was likely feeling the effects of a hard-fought prep win on heavy going, and he benefited from a masterful Hugh Bowman ride to beat Rey de Oro to the wire. Previously third to Kitasan Black in the 2016 Japan Cup, Cheval Grand was likewise third in their rematch in last December’s Arima Kinen (G1).

Cheval Grand has made only three starts this campaign. He was never involved when 13th to Suave Richard in the Osaka Hai (G1), then improved in the Tenno Sho Spring (G1), where he struck the front in the stretch but got nailed by Rainbow Line at the conclusion of the two-mile marathon. Cheval Grand most recently checked in fourth in his Kyoto Daishoten (G2) warm-up, readily outkicked by a resurgent Satono Diamond. As trainer Yasuo Tomomichi points out, he was third in the same prep last year and moved forward to spring the upset. Cristian Demuro now takes over at the helm.

Satono Diamond regained the winning thread in the Kyoto Daishoten (c) Japan Racing Association

Satono Diamond, the champion three-year-old colt of 2016, is just finding himself again after losing his way. During his championship campaign, he beat Kitasan Black fair and square in the 2016 Arima Kinen, on the heels of a fine classic series capped by victory in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1). Satono Diamond carried that form into his four-year-old season until his venture for the 2017 Arc, when he came undone on the unsuitably soft going in France.

While Satono Diamond wasn’t really himself this spring and summer, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee commented that he had breathing issues that he’s since gotten past. He certainly looked like his old self at Kyoto last out, and “Magic Man” Joao Moreira, whose hoped-for permanent move to Japan was scuttled (for the time being) by a failed exam, picks up the mount. If Satono Diamond topples Almond Eye, he’d become a record fourth Japan Cup winner for sire Deep Impact, who’s currently tied with his own sire, Sunday Silence, for the honor.

Suave Richard nicked the Osaka Hai under a clever Mirco Demuro (c) Japan Racing Association

Suave Richard is vying with Satono Diamond for the role of second choice. As a son of Heart’s Cry (like Cheval Grand), Suave Richard was entitled to progress as an older horse. For that reason, his productive three-year-old season in 2017 could be read as a harbinger. Second in the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) to divisional champion Rey de Oro, he beat elders in the Copa Republica Argentina (G2) last November and finished the year with a fourth in the Arima Kinen.

After resuming with a stalk-and-pounce verdict in the Kinko Sho (G2), Suave Richard notched his first Grade 1 in the Osaka Hai (G1) under an inspired midrace move by Mirco Demuro. He then cut back to a mile for the Yasuda Kinen (G1), and went off favored despite the experimental nature of the spot. His excellent third highlighted his class, especially considering the time was a stakes-record-equaling 1:31.30. Favored again in his comeback in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1), Suave Richard was out of rhythm for the duration after a hefty bump at the start and wound up 10th to old foe Rey de Oro. That race was a non-event for him in the circumstances, and he promises a rebound here.

Kiseki, a classic winner at three, brings a useful placing in the Tenno Sho Autumn (c) Japan Racing Association

Kiseki also represents the Rey de Oro form. Not only was he third in the Tenno Sho Autumn, but Kiseki was also runner-up to him in last year’s Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2). Kiseki flattered Rey de Oro by coming back from that trial loss to capture the 2017 Kikuka Sho in his absence. Like Satono Diamond, Kiseki went through doldrums but regained form of late. Third in the Mainichi Okan (G2) (whose runner-up, Stelvio, went on to garner the Mile Championship [G1]), Kiseki turned in a bold front-running bid in the Tenno Sho Autumn and just got outkicked in deep stretch. He’s intriguing on the step back up in trip.

Satono Crown has been hit-or-miss throughout his career. His hits include mugging Highland Reel in the 2016 Hong Kong Vase (G1), scoring in the 2017 Takarazuka Kinen (G1), and giving Kitasan Black all he could handle in last year’s Tenno Sho Autumn. Satono Crown has produced more “misses” ever since. Not seen after a 12th in his Takarazuka title defense in June, he did not come to hand enough to try the Tenno Sho. Trainer Noriyuki Hori believes he’s turned the corner, and jockey William Buick is tasked with helping him regain his spark.

Speaking of Highland Reel, his full brother Idaho was fifth in last year’s Japan Cup, one of the best efforts by a European here in the past decade. Stablemate Capri is a far better animal, so if the extrapolation holds across years, he holds strong claims for a placing at least. A multiple highweight by virtue of his victory in the all-star 2017 St Leger (G1) at Doncaster, the Galileo colt defeated Cracksman in last summer’s Irish Derby (G1) as well. His 2018 campaign has been blighted by injury, but his sneaky fifth to Enable in the Arc hinted of better things to come. Wheeling back in 13 days and shortening up for the Champion S. (G1) backfired, for Capri was fourth and removed from the list of Breeders’ Cup possibles. Although rain would be preferred, Capri is effective in quicker conditions and should be involved at the finish with Ryan Moore.

The other European gray, Thundering Blue, emerged from the handicap ranks this summer to become a top-rank performer for trainer David Menuisier. His third in the Juddmonte International (G1) to Roaring Lion and Poet’s Word is his stellar piece of form, but the rest – scores in the York (G2) and Stockholm Cup International (G3), and a recent second to Desert Encounter in the Canadian International (G1) – imply he has to step up again.

The remainder of the Japanese contingent needs a career-best to factor. Mikki Swallow, winless since last fall’s St Lite Kinen (G2) and unplaced in his prior Grade 1 tries in the Kikuka Sho and Osaka Hai, was 13th in the Sapporo Kinen (G2). Three used the November 4 renewal of the Copa Republica Argentina as their stepping stone but couldn’t hit the board – Win Tenderness (fourth), Ganko (sixth), and Noble Mars (ninth). Ganko has been unplaced since his breakthrough in the March 28 Nikkei Sho (G2), and a similar comment applies to Win Tenderness, winner of the Meguro Kinen (G2) over Noble Mars, who was subsequently third in the Takarazuka. Erstwhile bridesmaid Sounds of Earth, second in the 2016 Japan Cup, hasn’t cracked the trifecta since, and Happy Grin, an NAR denizen, is up against it at this level.