by Ron Flatter

Picks and analysis on Japan’s big weekend of racing

  • The Oka Sho runs at 2:40 a.m. ET on Sunday morning.

That overused phrase “recency bias” is as much a turn-off for horse racing’s value seekers as it is for cliché haters. For this weekend’s Ōka Shō it is a simply non-starter.
Only one favorite in the last nine years has won this equivalent of the English 1,000 Guineas for 3-year-old fillies.

The last three carried in four-race winning streaks. They were all snapped. The last five came in with a combined lifetime record of 19-for-21. They came out 19-for-26. And none of those nine renewals was won by Japan’s champion 2-year-old filly from the year before.

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So what does this mean for Resistencia?

A unanimous choice as Japan’s best juvenile filly of 2019, the granddaughter of Sunday Silence was the 3-1 odds favorite in early international betting for the $2.1 million race Sunday at 2:40 a.m. ET. But unlike the other recent well-backed predecessors, she comes in with a loss in her last start. That was a third-place finish as the undefeated, 2-5 favorite in the Grade 2 Tulip Shō over the same firm mile of turf that they will use this weekend at Hanshin.
Resistencia raced to the lead last month, and that was typical. But jockey Yuichi Kitamura never took her more than two lengths past her rivals, and that was not typical. She lost a three-way fight over the last 200 yards.
So trainer Takeshi Matsushita is turning back to the legendary Yutaka Take, Japan’s 51-year-old version of Mike Smith and the rider in Resistencia’s debut victory in October. Take has won the Ōka Shō five times but none since 2004.

Oka Sho Field

Among the 17 others drawn into the race and carrying 121 pounds each, there are plenty of flawed résumés among those with shorter odds.

At 2-for-2, the closer Daring Tact (7-2) is making a class jump from an ungraded stakes victory two months ago over a firm mile at Kyoto. The pace-chasing Maltese Diosa (6-1) and closer Cravache d’Or (6-1) have five losses between them, but they finished one-two ahead of Resistencia in the Tulip Shō. Deep closer Ria Amelia (8-1) finished sixth to Resistencia as the 2-for-2 favorite last December in the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies.
Sanctuaire (8-1) may be the most intriguing of the value plays. A pace stalker, she is coming off a Grade 3 race in January at Kyoto, where she accomplished something that few in this weekend’s field have. She took on the boys and won. With two wins in three starts, her lone loss was by three-quarters of a length to Ria Amelia in a Grade 3 mile last fall at Tokyo.
If she were to score the upset win, Sanctuaire would bring her late sire Deep Impact his sixth stallion victory in this race since 2011. Trainer Kazuo Fujisawa would have his second Ōka Shō triumph in a row; he won last year when Gran Alegria’s 1:32.7 set a stakes record. And after being quarantined two weeks after flying from the canceled Dubai World Cup, Christophe Lemaire would ride to his third consecutive win in this race that kicks off the Japanese fillies’ triple crown.
Behind closed doors, this weekend’s card and racing throughout Japan are going forward despite an emergency declaration Monday by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The Japan Racing Association convinced its local and national governments that the corona virus safeguards that it put in place six weeks ago are strong enough to keep its tracks open for business.

Not only are fans locked out, but jockeys and horses are being prevented from moving between tracks on consecutive days until at least May 3. Riders also must change their clothes and keep their tack in individual workplaces rather than the common area of a traditional jockeys room.
So despite the restrictions – and because of them – racing continues in Japan. And so does most of the betting.

According to local reports, handle has dropped only 15-20 percent since the pandemic was declared. So even with the loss of in-person wagering from fans renowned for being as fiercely loyal as they are enthusiastic, the sport still has strong support in Japan.

The 2019 Oka Sho