With Almond Eye skipping her title defense in favor of the December 8 Hong Kong International Races, the Japan Cup (G1) throne is up for grabs at Tokyo on Sunday. And a rainy forecast contributes to the degree of uncertainty with few having tested softish going.
Adding a poignant note to proceedings, this 39th running is billed as the Deep Impact Memorial, in honor of the all-time great Japan Cup star of 2006 who sadly passed away in July.
Four entrants are trying to win the about 1 1/2-mile prize for their much-mourned sire, and a pair of Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1) winners bookend his hopes. Best among them is 2018 laureate Wagnerian, followed by up-and-comer Jinambo, sophomore filly Curren Bouquetd’or, and Makahiki who’s lost a few steps since his 2016 Derby trophy.
The Deep Impact offspring have to overcome a few top threats, notably two-time Japanese champ Rey de Oro (by King Kamehameha) and Suave Richard (by Heart’s Cry). A couple of the Deep Impacts face challenges from their own shedrow. Wagnerian and Makahiki are just two of the five-strong Japan Cup squad trained by Yasuo Tomomichi, along with 2017 hero Cheval Grand, the progressive You Can Smile, and the enigmatic Etario.
Rey de Oro, who descends from the immediate family of Deep Impact, has scored both of his marquee wins here in the 2017 Derby and last year’s Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). Runner-up to Cheval Grand in his only prior Japan Cup attempt as a three-year-old, Rey de Oro sat out the 2018 edition and ended the season with a close second in the prestigious Arima Kinen (G1). So far his 2019 has been uncharacteristically lackluster. Flopping for the second straight year in the Sheema Classic (G1) on Dubai World Cup night, he was only fifth in the Takarazuka Kinen (G1) and fourth as the defending champion in the September 22 Sankei Sho All Comers (G2) at Nakayama.
But Rey de Oro is eligible to rebound back at Tokyo, especially this time of year, and the money is starting to come for the new favorite. Trainer Kazuo Fujisawa commented he’s turned the corner now that the weather’s turned cooler. Picking up a new rider in William Buick could also have an effect. Rey de Oro sports a soft-ground win over the course, if that career debut supplies any clues in this context.
Familiar rival Suave Richard, narrowly denied by Rey de Oro in the 2017 Derby, had been trading as the slight favorite more for his consistency than his wins. Since a top-level breakthrough in the 2018 Osaka Hai (G1), his best results have been thirds including in last fall’s Japan Cup, the Sheema in March, and the Takarazuka Kinen in June. Suave Richard warmed up with a seventh in the October 27 renewal of the Tenno Sho won in grand style by Almond Eye. Trainer Yasushi Shono has said Suave Richard has gotten a bit “clever” with age, so it’s intriguing that new rider Oisin Murphy reported he worked well in cheekpieces.
Cheval Grand, like Suave Richard by Heart’s Cry, has gone winless since the 2017 Japan Cup. But the veteran has gone close in the 2018 Tenno Sho Spring (G1), placed third in tight finishes in the past two Arima Kinens, and fared best of the shippers when second in the Sheema. Cheval Grand took his show on the road to Great Britain over the summer, only to find both spots uncongenial. Sixth behind Enable in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) on unsuitably soft ground, he needed much longer than the about 1 5/16 miles of the Juddmonte International (G1) to get going at York. Cheval Grand has to roll back the clock to improve on his fourth to Almond Eye here a year ago, and soft going wouldn’t help.
Wagnerian is currently second favorite, and last year’s Derby star projects improvement back at this course and distance. Sidelined following a score in the 2018 Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2), Wagnerian has posted three solid efforts in defeat this term, all over an inadequate 1 1/4 miles. He was beaten just a half-length in his Osaka Hai comeback, threw two shoes en route to a fourth in the Sapporo Kinen (G2), and rallied for fifth from post 14 in a blanket finish for the Tenno Sho Autumn minors last out. The question is how he might handle the going if it gets really soft. While connections believed he wanted it firmer when unplaced in the 2018 Satsuki Sho (G1), other factors likely contributed to his loss as well. Indeed, he had won on soft as a juvenile, albeit in an allowance, so perhaps the ground issue shouldn’t dissuade any backers.
Stablemate You Can Smile, most recently fourth to Almond Eye in that Tenno Sho, is another member of the banner 2018 classic crop with claims here. Third in last year’s Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1), he has yet to score beyond Grade 3 level. But his two graded victories span an impressive distance range, from the marathon Diamond (G3) to the about 10-furlong Niigata Kinen (G3), and the King Kamehameha colt could have more up his sleeve.
So could sparingly raced four-year-old Jinambo, who teams up with Ryan Moore after just missing to fellow Kaneko Makoto runner You Can Smile in his graded debut at Niigata. Bred in the purple as a son of Deep Impact and 2010 Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown champion Apapane, Jinambo has no ground fears. The Noriyuki Hori pupil boasts an allowance win on a Tokyo course variously listed as soft to heavy two back.
Conversely, Makahiki’s best days appear to be behind him. The 2016 Derby winner hasn’t won in three years and exits a 10th behind Almond Eye in the Tenno Sho. Thus Makahiki shapes up as the biggest outsider of the quartet of Kaneko Makoto homebreds in the Japan Cup, with Wagnerian and You Can Smile the leading colorbearers.
Curren Bouquetd’or faces a demographic challenge as a three-year-old filly without the resume of the only two others in that category to win – stablemate Almond Eye and Gentildonna. Twice classic-placed, she was runner-up in the recent Shuka Sho (G1), and more significantly just a neck shy in the Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) back in May at this track and trip.
Trainer Sakae Kunieda freely recognized that there isn’t a comparison between Curren Bouquetd’or and his star Almond Eye, but he did make a salient point: he passed up a chance to stick to distaff company in the November 10 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1). That is how much he wanted to get her back to a longer trip at Tokyo, under a light weight. And although she’s untested on a soft course, her dam, Chilean champion Solaria by Scat Daddy, was effective on heavy going.
Of the remainder, Muito Obrigado comes off a new top in the Copa Republica Argentina (G2), beating Taisei Trail to go one better than his second in the 2018 running. Muito Obrigado also gets Christophe Lemaire. Yet Copa fourth Look Twice may have even more upside. The mount of Frankie Dettori, Look Twice had left Muito Obrigado back in fifth in their prior start, the Meguro Kinen (G2), in record time at this track.
Multiple Grade 2 victor Danburite just missed in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2) in his first start back from injury, but hasn’t cracked the trifecta in a major since the 2017 Satsuki Sho. Etario, fifth at Kyoto last out, hasn’t built upon his productive 2018 campaign when he was a near-miss in the Japanese St Leger.
Multiple listed winner Daiwa Cagney just added the October S. to his resume but has been a cut below in his graded attempts. Win Tenderness, unplaced since his career high in the 2018 Meguro Kinen, is unlikely to do much better than his eighth behind Almond Eye a year ago.
In a measure of the local dominance over the past 14 years, not a single international horse has ventured to the Japan Cup – the first time in the feature’s 39-year history that a purely domestic cast is lining up. Perhaps that’s not so much of a surprise after Japanese flagbearers have traveled around the globe with such success in 2019. Aside from Almond Eye’s Dubai heroics, Deirdre upstaged the Nassau (G1) at Glorious Goodwood and Mer de Glace captured Australia’s Caulfield Cup (G1) before Lys Gracieux lifted the Cox Plate (G1).
Might the Japan Cup/Deep Impact Memorial launch a budding star on the world stage for 2020?