January 27, 2021

Almond Eye seals historic legacy by taking another Japan Cup in finale

Almond Eye
Almond Eye goes out in a blaze of glory by winning her second Japan Cup (Tomoya Moriuchi/Horsephotos.com)

Star mare Almond Eye brought historic stature into her finale in Sunday’s $6 million Japan Cup (G1), but the 6-5 favorite burnished her legacy to even more luminous proportions. Sweeping past the tear-away early leader Kiseki in deep stretch, Almond Eye comfortably held hitherto unbeaten Triple Crown winners Contrail and Daring Tact in a generational showdown to savor.

Herself the queen of the 2018 Japanese Fillies’ Triple Crown (Tiara) and Japan Cup, Almond Eye made history in three ways on Sunday. She became Japan’s all-time leading money-earner, surpassing Kitasan Black; she furthered her grip on the Japanese record book with an unprecedented ninth Grade 1 turf title; and although matching Gentildonna’s feat of winning two Japan Cups (2012-13), Almond Eye is the only one to take her nation’s signature race in non-consecutive years.

The anticipation for the 40th Japan Cup was prolonged when the lone international contestant, Way to Paris, stubbornly refused to load. The patient gate crew managed to get him in after several minutes of persuasion, and at last by degrees, as the home team circled awaiting their turns.

When the field was finally on its way, huge longshot Yoshio went forward, but Kiseki soon outsprinted him to the lead. It was a daring reprise of his tactics in the 2018 Japan Cup, only more so, as Kiseki opened up by an even larger double-digit margin. The veteran took no prisoners through punishing fractions of :23.5, :46.6, 1:09.4, and 1:33.1, and still had a commanding advantage in the stretch.

Almond Eye was well placed in the main body of the field, behind the chasing Yoshio and Taurus Gemini but not too far back. Under a perfectly judged ride by partner Christophe Lemaire, the daughter of Lord Kanaloa was not given the signal until about the 300-meter mark. By that point, Glory Vase had been driven to pursue the now-tiring Kiseki, but sophomores Contrail and Daring Tact were only beginning to engage from further adrift.

With her characteristic burst, Almond Eye soared past Kiseki and Glory Vase, and Lemaire just finessed her home by 1 1/4 lengths. The reigning Triple Crown winners took the minor awards to add to the fittingness of the result. Contrail, the 9-5 second choice, clocked the fastest final three furlongs in :34.3 to snare second by a neck from Tiara queen Daring Tact, the 2.70-1 third pick, who likewise closed with a flourish in :34.4.

The next across the line also underscored the solidity of the form. Curren Bouquetd’or, Almond Eye’s stablemate from the Sakae Kunieda barn and last year’s Japan Cup runner-up, nipped the 16-1 Glory Vase for fourth. The eminently logical top five were clear of the rest.

A further three lengths back in sixth came another high-class performer, World Premiere, who was resuming from an 11-month layoff. The winner of the 2019 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) had been third in last December’s Arima Kinen (G1) to Horse of the Year Lys Gracieux and champion Saturnalia.

Mikki Swallow was the other to overhaul Kiseki, who wound up eighth, followed by Makahiki, slow-starting Way to Paris, Perform a Promise, You Can Smile, Crescendo Love, Taurus Gemini, and the distanced Yoshio.

Almond Eye completed about 1 1/2 miles in 2:23.0, not threatening her record time of 2:20.6 from 2018 on a course that was riding differently. The Tokyo turf was firm, but the inside paths have been rougher of late. Almond Eye had no problem from post 2, although Lemaire made sure to swing to a wider lane in the stretch.

Almond Eye retires with a record of 15-11-2-1. Her Japanese record nine Grade/Group 1 turf titles include her Tiara sweep of the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1), Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1), and Shuka Sho (G1); the 2019 Dubai Turf (G1) on World Cup night; the 2020 Victoria Mile (G1); the past two editions of the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1); and now two Japan Cups. Her placings came in her career debut and in back-to-back runnings of the Yasuda Kinen (G1), with extenuating circumstances. So did her unplaced effort in the 2019 Arima Kinen have an excuse, after missing her Hong Kong target with a fever.

Silk Racing Co.’s 5-year-old has amassed more than ¥1.915 billion (approximately $18.4 million) in earnings, eclipsing Kitasan Black’s record of ¥1.876 billion. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the Dubai World Cup program, and her Dubai Turf title defense, her portfolio could have been even richer.

Kunieda and Lemaire commented on the terrific ending to her career while looking forward to her offspring.

“She looked good since arriving at the racecourse,” her trainer said. “She has definitely matured mentally. We were worried about the rough going near the rails, but Christophe did a good job in finding a good path. The pace was ideal for Almond Eye and her response was totally different from that in the Tenno Sho Autumn.

“Since expectations of an eighth Grade 1 title were enormous in her last Tenno Sho start, we did feel pressure but today, all we wanted was for her to come back safe and sound. The victory is such a bonus, we couldn’t be happier.

“She has given us so much excitement and joy and it has been fulfilling to be a part of her career. It would be great if I could be involved in training her colt or filly someday.”

Lemaire hailed Almond Eye as a “perfect” performer:

“Since this was her final start, it was very special for me and I’m thrilled we were able to win. After winning the Victoria Mile in the spring, we had three weeks to get her prepared for the Yasuda Kinen in which she was second. She had an extra week this time and was tuned up beautifully.

“She was relaxed in the gate, broke smoothly and was able to sit in a good position. The turf condition near the rails was much better than last week so I don’t think the inner draw was a problem. The pace was just right for her and she responded well in the stretch. The others closing in on us didn’t worry me at all.

“Almond Eye is a perfect mare and doesn’t have any weak points. Her career as a racehorse ended today but I look forward to riding her children.”

Out of the 2006 Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup winner and dual classic-placed Fusaichi Pandora, a Sunday Silence mare descended from the superb Best in Show and Sex Appeal, Almond Eye will offer some intriguing pedigree patterns to accentuate.