July 16, 2024

Almond Eye stokes international ambitions with record-breaking Japan Cup

Almond Eye and jockey Christophe Lemaire win the Japan Cup (G1) at Tokyo Racecourse on November 25, 2018 (c) Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com

Described pre-race as a “Ferrari” by her jockey Christophe Lemaire and as a “monster” by rival rider Mirco Demuro, Almond Eye lived up to those epithets by obliterating Tokyo’s course record in Sunday’s Japan Cup (G1).

Japan’s recently anointed Fillies’ Triple Crown winner was expected to transcend her own division, going off as the 2-5 favorite in this first sortie versus older males. But her manner of victory has fueled the fire of international ambitions for 2019 – chief among them an elusive Japanese breakthrough in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).

While Almond Eye’s rail draw wasn’t exactly what Lemaire wanted, she had the cruising speed to take up a stalking position, a tactical switch from her typical off-the-pace style. Up front, Kiseki was taking no prisoners as he winged it every step of the way, a smart attempt by the 2017 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) winner to turn it into a searing test of stamina.

Almond Eye not only handled the rollicking pace, but easily took it all in her long, raking stride. Still on the bridle in midstretch when cruising up behind Kiseki, she received a couple of love taps to go on, and the race was over. Almond Eye forged 1 3/4 lengths clear of a valiant Kiseki, who was himself 3 1/2 lengths in front of Suave Richard (Demuro’s mount) with defending champion Cheval Grand another neck back in fourth.

Her final time of 2:20.6 for 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles) on the firm course smashed the previous mark of 2:22.10 established in 2005 by Alkaased, who also happens to be the last European winner. The two Europeans in Sunday’s edition, Thundering Blue and Capri, never landed a blow in 10th and 11th, respectively.

Almond Eye became the second three-year-old filly to capture the Japan Cup, following in the hoofsteps of Gentildonna (2012), also the last to sweep the Fillies’ Triple Crown until this year. Unbeaten since a second in her unveiling at two, the daughter of sprint phenom Lord Kanaloa and the high-class Sunday Silence mare Fusaichi Pandora has now won six straight.

Her skein includes the Nikkan Sports Sho Shinzan Kinen (G3) against sophomore males as a stepping stone to the classics, the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1) in stakes-record time, the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) in a near-stakes record, and most recently the Shuka Sho (G1).

Lemaire revealed that his potential concerns evaporated as the race unfolded.

“I am happy to have won the Japan Cup which is a big international race watched everywhere around the world,” Lemaire said, “but personally I feel relieved to have won because I knew she had the potential to win but you never know what might happen in the 2,400 meters.

“Today I was a little bit anxious, but I think we saw the best Almond Eye in the race and it was a great show. I don’t really like the inside number one draw because it is very hard to make a plan and can depend on how you break—I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her out of the gate. It can also be pretty tricky because if you get locked inside a slow pace it can be a mess in the end and it is also difficult to stay back and move wide to the outside.

“She broke well, and I saw that Kiseki was taking the lead which was good because Kiseki is a good horse and a leader with a good pace, so I had the best leader for Almond Eye and was happy with how the race went. By the first corner Almond Eye was already her usual self and well into the bridle and I really enjoyed being in the position of being on her back and by the backstretch, I nearly thought the race was over and ours.

“This is a very special filly,” Lemaire concluded. “As I keep telling the press in Japan that she is “Perfect” – her ability, temperament, she can adapt and race from any position, so if she has a chance to race overseas, I think she can race as well as she did today if not at least be competitive against the world’s best.”

Trainer Sakae Kunieda also mentioned the tantalizing prospect of taking Almond Eye internationally.

“I had every confidence in her potential,” Kunieda said, “and she was in great form coming into the race— she traveled smoothly to Tokyo yesterday and settled in nicely — and although she broke a little in air at the break, she was still able to secure a good position up front and into a nice flow. When I saw that the clock indicated 59.9 seconds at the 1,000-meter mark, I was already pretty sure that she could pull it off and win the race.

“The Japan Cup itself being recognized as an international event and having won this race gives her various options to choose from including an overseas challenge that will most certainly be expected of her, although details will have to be discussed with the owners.”