The Japanese Classics are coming!

While fans of U.S. racing have to wait until the first Saturday in September for the Kentucky Derby (G1), the Japanese classics are going forward on schedule, albeit spectator-less, in April.

Both the fillies’ and colts’ events offer outstanding turf action with plenty of intrigue for horseplayers. Here is a prospectus of the spring and early summer racing in Japan.

The Japanese “Guineas” – Oka Sho

First on tap, late this Saturday night U.S. time (Apr. 11), is the Oka Sho (G1) for fillies at a metric mile. Dubbed the “Japanese 1000 Guineas” as the approximation of the Newmarket classic, the Hanshin feature is expected to give champion 2-year-old filly Resistencia the opportunity to rebound from her prep loss. While she’d previously dominated the two who finished ahead of her last time, Maltese Diosa and Cravache d’Or, Resistencia will face new challengers too, including Sanctuaire, a half-sister to multiple U.S. Grade 1 winner Yoshida.

Japan’s Triple Crown – Satsuki Sho, Tokyo Yushun, Kikuka Sho

The following week, Japan’s Triple Crown commences with the April 19 Satsuki Sho (G1) at Nakayama. Although contested over a longer trip of about 1 1/4 miles, it’s described as the Japanese 2000 Guineas as the first classic open to colts (and fillies). This year’s renewal serves up a clash between the unbeaten juvenile stars of 2019, Contrail and Salios. Contrail was voted divisional champion, but Salios came out on top when the Japanese 2-year-old ratings were published.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown, the May 31 Tokyo Yushun (G1), is properly called the Japanese Derby as an about 1 1/2-mile test that mirrors the European classic distance. The fillies once again go first with their Oaks equivalent, the Yushun Himba (G1) on May 24, held at the same Tokyo track and trip.

Dirt racing in Japan

Cafe Pharoah Wins the 2020 Hyacinth Stakes
Cafe Pharoah Wins the 2020 Hyacinth Stakes (Courtesy of Yuki Shimono)
Master Fencer
Master Fencer (Coady Photography/Churchill Downs)

Not to be overlooked is the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, which unleashed a serious dirt 3-year-old in Cafe Pharoah. The Kentucky-bred son of American Pharoah remained perfect in the Feb. 23 Hyacinth S. despite a slow start. Cafe Pharoah did not run in the ensuing points race, the March 28 Fukuryu at Nakayama, but he was flattered when Hyacinth fifth Herrschaft came back to win. By scoring 40 points in the Fukuryu, Herrschaft overtook Cafe Pharoah on the leaderboard. More points races may be added to the schedule, and at this writing, the Japan Road invitation remains open.

Last year’s Japan Road invitee, Master Fencer, was all set to run in the Dubai World Cup (G1) until the COVID-19 pandemic prompted its cancellation. So was his compatriot Chrysoberyl, Japan’s reigning champion dirt horse who suffered his first loss when seventh in the Saudi Cup. Both could try to make the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for them.

Speaking of the Japanese dirt scene, TwinSpires.com is now offering wagering on additional tracks beyond the usual Saturday nights from the Japan Racing Association (JRA). Three dirt tracks, operated by local governments under the National Association of Racing umbrella, are available – Tokyo City, also known as Oi (in the city center and not to be confused with the palatial Tokyo course that belongs to the JRA); Funabashi, east of Tokyo; and Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo. Generally, one of those tracks will race on Japanese weeknights but be sure to check the TwinSpires.com calendar for specifics.

Almond Eye among older turf stars slated for action

The marquee events, however, are on the Japanese turf. Elite stayers will square off in the about 2-mile Tenno Sho (Spring) (G1) on May 3, with defending champion Fierement and Kiseki leading the cast of probables at Kyoto. Milers will be showcased at Tokyo beginning with 3-year-olds in the May 10 NHK Mile Cup (G1), continuing with distaffers in the May 17 Victoria Mile (G1), and culminating in the prestigious Yasuda Kinen (G1) on June 7.

Former Japanese Horse of the Year Almond Eye has unfinished business from last year’s Yasuda Kinen, when she was a troubled third to Indy Champ. Also pointing for the Yasuda Kinen is Admire Mars, like Almond Eye deprived of competing in the Dubai Turf on World Cup night.

In recent years, the Yasuda Kinen has served as a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), and the last major of Japan’s first half, the June 28 Takarazuka Kinen (G1), has been a Challenge event for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). The about 1 3/8-mile affair at Hanshin is the next target for Saturnalia, the champion 3-year-old colt of 2019, and recent Osaka Hai (G1) heroine Lucky Lilac could turn up as well.