Horse Racing in Japan
Last week, eighth pick Jour Polaire shone brightest in the Victoria Mile and this week, on Sunday, May 20, the spotlight remains on the girls at Tokyo. The 3-year-olds are back for the second filly classic of the year, the Grade 1 Yushun Himba, a 2,400-meter turf event more commonly known as the Japanese Oaks, or simply “the Oaks.”
Twenty-one fillies have been nominated for the classic and four of them are vying for the last two spots. Eighteen will leave the gate at 15:40 local time for the Oaks’ 79th running and a chance at a share of the over ¥238 million purse and the winner’s prize of ¥110 million. In addition, the top three finishers will earn a ticket to the 2,400-meter Prix Vermeille, a Group 1 race run in September at Longchamp Racecourse.
The Oaks was first run in 1938, initially at Hanshin Racecourse, and has been run every year since, except for 1944 and 1945. Since 1943, it has been run over 2,400 meters (a distance shared by the Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) and the Japan Cup at Tokyo) and was moved to Tokyo from 1946.
Trials for the Japanese Oaks include the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas), which awards a berth in the classic race to the top five finishers and the Grade 2 Flora Stakes over 2,000 meters, from which the top two finishers earn a ticket to the Oaks. The winner of the open-class Sweetpea Stakes over 1,800 meters also gets a swing at the Oaks over what will most likely be the most grueling race the fillies have yet taken on. The Tokyo course, with a homestretch of 530 meters, is the longest in Japan and includes a hill that starts 400 meters before the finish line and rises 2 meters over the next furlong.
Progeny of new stallions won the first two classics of 2018 and chances look good they’ll make it three in a row. Headlining the Oaks lineup are first-crop daughters of sprint champion Lord Kanaloa and triple crown heavyweight Orfevre. Likely to be the top two picks on Sunday are the Miho-based Oka Sho winner Almond Eye, by Lord Kanaloa and Ritto-based Oka Sho runnerup Lucky Lilac by Orfevre. The Eishin Flash filly Usubenino Kimi (if she makes the cut) will also be in the running to become the first first-crop filly in eight years to win the Yushun Himba.
Deep Impact fillies have won the race three times. Looking to make it four are seven nominees this year, including Flora Stakes winner Satono Walkure and Flower Cup champ Cantabile, who are stablemates and join yet another charge of Katsuhiko Sumii in the lineup – Sweetpea Stakes winner Randonnee. Sumii’s trio, none of whom ran in the Oka Sho, are gunning for the trainer’s third Oaks victory, which would put him out in front of the others, as well as give him his first win of the race in 10 years.
Looking to the past for hints, fillies who have raced in the Oka Sho have won the Oaks eight times over the past decade and six of them had figured in the top three spots of the first filly classic. The race favorite made the Oaks winner’s circle four times over the past 10 years and finished in second place three times and third once. Popular picks tend to do well, though upsets do occur. Ninth pick Meisho Mambo surprised when she won in 2013 and returned more than 28-1 on a ticket to win. The only double-digit pick to finish in the top three in the past 10 runnings was F T Maia, who ran second to Tall Poppy as the 13th choice in 2008.
The race record is held by Gentildonna, who clocked 2 minutes, 23.6 seconds under Yuga Kawada in 2012. All runners carry a set weight of 55 kg. The Oaks is the 11th race on the Sunday card of 12 at Tokyo Racecourse. Post time is 15:40 local time. Here is a look at the expected top picks:
Almond Eye: After running second in her debut, the Miho-based Almond Eye went on to ace all of her starts, three of them, her last being the Oka Sho on April 8, where she was a tad slow out of the gate, raced from behind, and shot down the stretch to win with a final 3-furlong time of 33.2 seconds. Her path to the Oka Sho had been an unusual one. She participated in none of the trials, but instead went from her maiden win to the Grade 3 Shinzan Stakes, competed against colts and topped them by nearly 2 lengths. This will be her first time at the distance (she’s had three miles and a 7-furlong debut), but her second time at Tokyo, where she broke her maiden. It’s a course that suits her with its long stretch. The distance has yet to be conquered by a Lord Kanaloa son or daughter but Almond Eye has support from her dam’s side. Fusaichi Pandora, who finished 14th in her Oka Sho run, went on to run second in the 2006 Oaks, then win the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in the autumn, and go on to finish fifth in the Japan Cup in the same month. All Fusaichi Pandora’s races were ridden by Yuichi Fukunaga, but Christophe Lemaire has held this daughter’s reins in all starts but the Shinzan Kinen and is set to ride her again on Sunday. Lemaire captured his first Oaks last year aboard Soul Stirring, but trainer Sakae Kunieda is looking to win his first Oaks without having to share it as he did in 2010, when his Apapane and Masaaki Koga’s Saint Emilion finished in a dead heat.
Lucky Lilac: After a debut win at Niigata, Lucky Lilac won the Grade 3 Artemis Stakes at Tokyo, then jumped to the top level for a win of the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, which brought her the JRA Best 2-Year-Old Filly award. In March came victory in the Grade 2 Tulip Sho, and then the first loss of her five-start career, in the Oka Sho, where she reached the top with 200 meters to go but was felled by Almond Eye’s swooping attack from the far outside. The extra distance, though it will be her first time over anything but 1,600 meters, should not be a problem and revenge could well be hers. “She has a big stride and I’ve always thought she was more suited to the longer distances,” says Mikio Matsunaga, who is looking for his first win of the Oaks as a trainer. As a jockey, Matsunaga won six Grade 1 races, all aboard fillies or mares, with his first big win the 1991 Oaks aboard Isono Roubles. Shu Ishibashi, who has ridden all Lucky Lilac’s five starts, has this ride.
Satono Walkure: Taking on her first Grade 1 event is the Deep Impact-sired Satono Walkure, who won the Grade 2 Flora Stakes at Tokyo last out, on her fourth start. The Katsuhiko Sumii-trained filly has figured in the money in all her races, with three wins and one third-place finish. Three of her starts have been in the 2,000-2,400 meter range, making her one of the most experienced fillies in this lineup over 2,400 meters. Satono Walkure’s run in the 2,000-meter Flora Stakes was a strong one that saw her miss a beat out of the gate but move powerfully up the stretch from the rear of the field to win in record time. Mirco Demuro, the current leading jockey, is looking to complete a total sweep of the Japanese 3-year-old classics on his fourth Oaks bid.
Lily Noble: The Rulership filly Lily Noble is another one who has finished all her starts thus far in the money, but is still looking for a Grade 1 victory. With a 1-1-2-3-3 record, all over the mile and including a second-place finish in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, Lily Noble gained her Oaks berth with her third-place finish in the Oka Sho. She has finished behind Lucky Lilac in her last three starts and has only allowed three horses to beat her to the finish line thus far. The extra distance should be a plus factor for Lily Noble. Her sire, who had eight wins in the 1,800-2,400 meter range, also ran fifth in the Japanese Derby and third in the Japan Cup.
Others to watch are Mau Lea, who drew wide but managed to finish fifth in the Oka Sho. She will be partnered with three-time Oaks winner Yutaka Take, who was forced to sit out the Tenno Sho (Spring) and the NHK Mile Cup (the horse he was set to ride won) due to a suspension and returned to miss the Victoria Mile by a nose. All for Love is jumping way up in class from victory in the open-class, 2,000-meter Wasurenagusa Sho, winners of which have gone on to win the Oaks twice in the past decade – Erin Court in 2011 and Mikki Queen in 2015.