March 28, 2023

Reilly has Eye on horse to follow in 2019

Almond Eye shown winning the 2018 Japan Cup (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Although racing fans have no shortage of up-and-comers and established stars to look forward to next season, one in particular has taken my eye – ALMOND EYE. The Japanese sensation already brings a portfolio of historic stature, yet with the added allure of potential still untapped. Could she be the one to give Japan the long-coveted Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) trophy?

Not to press the comparison too far, Almond Eye nevertheless has elements in common with the two most celebrated distaffers in training, Australian wonder Winx and European standout Enable. Almond Eye’s explosive kick across the distance spectrum, from a metric mile up to about 1 1/2 miles, is reminiscent of Winx’s impressive range. In a rough parallel to Enable’s three-year-old campaign, Almond Eye dominated the fillies’ classics before defeating older males in her region’s premier fall championship.

Also like both Winx and Enable, Almond Eye was bred to improve with maturity, and accordingly had limited exposure at two. The daughter of Lord Kanaloa rallied from far back to take second in a Niigata newcomers’ race last summer, and with that experience under her belt, she hasn’t lost since.

If her six-race winning streak doesn’t match Enable’s nine, never mind Winx’s 29, it’s respectable enough to feature the Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown and the Japan Cup (G1) in record time. She wasn’t the first to accomplish that sequence, rather following the trail blazed by Gentildonna (2012). But I’d argue that Almond Eye has a panache that the gritty street-fighter Gentildonna didn’t.

And it’s precisely her flair – or arrogance – that suggests Almond Eye is capable of imposing herself on the world stage.

Watch how she inhales the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1) field in a stakes-record 1:33.1 for Hanshin’s metric mile; how coolly confident jockey Christophe Lemaire was once again in the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) in 2:23.8, the second-fastest time in race history; and how she fired off the five-month break to complete the sweep in the Shuka Sho (G1).

Throughout the Triple Tiara, Almond Eye clocked blistering splits for her last three furlongs (:33.2 in the Guineas and Oaks and :33.6 in the Shuka Sho).

That’s why she was bet down to 2-5 favoritism in her first attempt versus elders in the Japan Cup. Showing a new tactical dimension to stalk the leader, Almond Eye was almost mocking Kiseki as she breezed alongside and drove clear in a record 2400-meter time of 2:20.6. Granted, the course was playing lightning-fast, but the fact that she was taken out of her normal style, and proved the only one able to go Kiseki’s pace, underscores her quality.

The tantalizing question going into 2019 is whether Almond Eye’s high level of form at home will translate abroad. She is expected to get her first taste of international travel for Dubai World Cup night, her target either the Dubai Turf (G1) or Sheema Classic (G1).

A European tour of duty for the Arc would furnish the stiffest test, including the possibility of softer going than she’s ever encountered in Japan. She handled her lone race on less-than-firm turf, a Grade 3 classic trial over males last January, in her typically impressive fashion, but “good” ground at Kyoto isn’t exactly a barometer for European soft.

Ideally the ground won’t be the determining factor come Arc Day 2019 at ParisLongchamp. Here’s to an epic clash between Enable seeking an unprecedented three-peat, this year’s hard-luck runner-up Sea of Class, and Almond Eye carrying the hopes of a nation.