October 27, 2021

Almond Eye upset by Indy Champ in Yasuda Kinen but loses no luster

Indy Champ (outside, red cap), with jockey Yuichi Fukunaga aboard, wins the Yasuda Kinen (G1) at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan on June 2, 2019 (c) Horsephotos.com/Tomoya Moriuchi

Sometimes a champion can earn greater admiration in defeat, and you can file Almond Eye’s loss in Sunday’s Yasuda Kinen (G1) at Tokyo in that category. The record will show that Japan’s unanimous Horse of the Year had her seven-race winning streak broken, as she finished third to the 18-1 upsetter Indy Champ and Aerolithe in the “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1).

But the summary verdict doesn’t begin to tell the story. The 7-10 favorite following her first international triumph in the Dubai Turf (G1) on World Cup night, Almond Eye nevertheless had a question to answer on the cutback to a metric mile: Would she be able to outsprint the trip specialists?

Sure, Almond Eye had crushed her own division at that trip in last year’s Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1). Since then, however, she’d excelled going farther when completing the Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown and capturing the 2400-meter Japan Cup (G1) in a record 2:20.6.

The Lord Kanaloa filly would have to summon her sire’s blistering speed to beat her country’s top milers at their own game. Would she get up in time in the Yasuda Kinen, or need more ground? Or was she just so much the best horse that the distance was irrelevant?

Almond Eye proved that she could indeed outsprint them on the clock, rattling off a field-best final 600 meters (about three furlongs) in :32.4. Unfortunately, her closing kick had to come from further behind, thanks to a train wreck at the start, and that was the difference in her narrow margin of defeat. Even so, Indy Champ had to run a stakes-record 1:30.9 to collar Aerolithe and hold off Almond Eye’s burst.

The debacle at the break was caused by Logi Cry, who swerved hard left from his outside post 16. The first victim, Danon Premium in post 15, was the 2-1 second choice. Coming off a score in the Yomiuri Milers Cup (G2), where Indy Champ was fourth, Danon Premium was expected to race prominently. Once the stalking type was wiped out, and robbed of securing any kind of early position, he never recovered and wound up last of 16.

Almond Eye, next door to Danon Premium in post 14, was roughed up in the chain reaction, and in turn body-slammed into Persian Knight in post 13, who had his whole hind end shoved out from underneath him. Persian Knight eventually worked his way to a 10th-place finish, one spot behind the miscreant Logi Cry.

While Almond Eye was going to hold fire in the opening stages anyway, the fracas at the start compromised her getting into rhythm organically and slotting into her most comfortable spot. Regular partner Christophe Lemaire had a more difficult hand to play throughout before threading through stretch traffic into the clear.

Meanwhile, 11-1 third choice Aerolithe was putting on a speed clinic and threatening to wire them. This was the free-wheeling mare we hoped to see in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), until the rains turned the Gulfstream course yielding, and she folded to ninth. On her preferred firm course here, Aerolithe was able to make use of her chief weapon. Guanciale was game in pursuit, but couldn’t overtake her and gave way in the final yards.

For the second straight year, however, Aerolithe would suffer a Yasuda Kinen heartbreak. Last June, it was Mozu Ascot who mowed her down late. The defending champion didn’t get as close to her on Sunday, and Indy Champ muscled him out of the way when launching his bid.

Quickening once seeing daylight with jockey Yuichi Fukunaga, Indy Champ reeled in Aerolithe by a neck. Almond Eye, gaining hand over fist, missed second by a nose. Gallant Guanciale held fourth from Sungrazer, with Mozu Ascot sixth. Eighth-placer Stelvio, who sped home in :32.6, presumably would have been involved in the finish if he hadn’t gotten off to a slow start from post 8.

Like Almond Eye, Indy Champ sports the colors of Silk Racing Co. The Hidetaka Otonashi-trained four-year-old brought a progressive profile into this first Grade 1 attempt. The winner of his first two starts, Indy Champ was third to eventual champion three-year-old colt Blast Onepiece in the 2018 Mainichi Hai (G3) and fourth in the Arlington Cup (G3).

The son of Stay Gold later compiled a three-race winning streak capped by the February 3 Tokyo Shimbun Hai (G3) at this course and distance, and the pace scenario was blamed for his recent fourth in the Milers Cup. His 18-1 odds made him the fourth choice in the Yasuda Kinen, after Almond Eye, Danon Premium, and Aerolithe.

Indy Champ is a “nephew” of Real Impact, the 2011 Yasuda Kinen hero who went on to land the 2015 George Ryder (G1) at Rosehill. The runner-up in Real Impact’s Yasuda Kinen, Strong Return, came back to win the 2012 edition in the stakes-record 1:31.3 eclipsed on Sunday. Indy Champ is a half-brother to sophomore filly A Will a Way, second in a photo in last November’s Keio Hai Nisai (G2) and most recently 10th in the Oka Sho.

Indy Champ’s dam, the winning King Kamehameha mare Will Power, is a half-sister to Real Impact; fellow Group 1 victor Neorealism, successful in the 2017 QE II Cup (G1) at Sha Tin; and Grade 1-placed multiple stakes scorer I’ll Love Again.

Unless connections opt to take up the free berth to the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita, Indy Champ would be a natural contender for the November 17 Mile Championship (G1) at Kyoto.

Almond Eye will step back up in trip in due course, with the October 27 Tenno Sho (Autumn) (G1) being her stated goal. The world awaits the next appearance for this exceptional talent, who has the same engine over a metric mile and 1 1/2 miles. Her streak has ended, but her finishing speed at such a range of distances is Winx-like.