It has been a chalky spring for high-profile horses in Japan, and what has become the chalkiest race there in recent years is coming this weekend.
In spite of its 2-mile distance and all the betting challenges that come with it, the favorite has won each of the last three springtime runnings of the $3 million Tennō Shō (G1), a twice-a-year turf race for the Emperor’s Cup. Sixteen older horses including one filly are entered for Sunday’s 2:40 a.m. ET renewal at what is forecast to be rainy Kyoto.
If the chalk trend persists it could mean a repeat for Fierement (9-4), the early betting favorite overseas, according to Oddschecker. The closer by Deep Impact is making his 5-year-old debut, the first horse in more than a decade to begin its season with this race.
With only nine starts to his name, Fierement has gone 0-for-3 since last spring’s Tennō Shō, including a last-place finish on yielding ground at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) in the Parisian autumn. He came back to finish a hard-charging fourth just before Christmas in the Arima Kinen (G1).
“He didn’t handle the ground in the Arc,” trainer Takahisa Tezuka told the Japan Racing Association. “But his run in the Arima Kinen was encouraging given what a tough race it was.”
But if bettors believe that Fierement and soft ground do not mix, they may turn instead to You Can Smile (3-1). Also a 5-year-old closer, he made up seven places in the stretch to finish fifth on yielding turf last November in the Japan Cup (G1). Last month he won the Hanshin Daishoten (G2), the 1 7/8 -mile race in which three of the last eight spring Tennō Shō winners prepped.
“He was 26 pounds heavier for that race than he was for the Japan Cup, and that seemed to make the difference,” said Yasuo Tomomichi, Japan’s winningest trainer this year. But Tomomichi was faced with the prospect of finding a substitute jockey after You Can Smile’s regular rider Yasunari Iwata was hurt in a spill last weekend.
The harder it rains the more that 6-year-old stalker Kiseki (9-2) might attract wagers. Although he has lost his last 11 races, his last victory was 2 1/2 years ago in the Grade Kikuka Shō (G1), Japan’s 1 7/8-mile version of the St Leger. That victory came at Kyoto on a course listed as heavy.
Hard luck has dotted Kiseki’s trip notes since. For instance, as the favorite in the Hanshin Daishoten, he missed the start and spotted the field more than six lengths. He fought back to finish seventh, but trainer Tatsue Ishikawa knew that there was work to do.
“He got off to such a poor start last time that gate schooling was necessary,” Ishikawa’s assistant Takashi Kotaki said. “That was (two weeks ago), and he passed that with no problem.”
The more significant change, though, was the jockey. The legendary Yutaka Take will ride Kiseki for the first time. Take has won eight runnings of this race, most recently with two-time Japanese champion Kitasan Black in 2016 and 2017.
The Tennō Shō entrants showing the best recent form include Mikki Swallow (12-1), a winning favorite in a 1 1/2-mile Grade 2 race last month; Tosen Cambina (20-1), the Hanshin Daishoten runner-up that had won three of his previous four starts; and Mozu Bello (20-1), a three-time winner at Kyoto that is making his Grade 1 debut. Meisho Tengen (14-1) is in the same, early-betting neighborhood on the strength of top-four finishes in his last three races, all at stayers’ distances up to 2 1/4 miles.
They all are out to replace a horse that is trying to become only the fifth to repeat in the 40 years that springtime winners have been allowed to defend the Emperor’s Cup. But it is not as if Fierement is really bucking much history since two of them did it in just the last six years.
Short-priced horses like Fierement dominated Japan in April, winning a pair of big races for 3-year-olds. Daring Tact (3-1) and Resistencia (5-2) were one-two in the fillies’ Oka Shō, and Contrail (8-5) won two weeks ago in the Satsuki Shō for the boys.
What Fierement will be trying to change is his recent form and perhaps an aversion to wet tracks. But if appearances mean anything, Tezuka said he has reason to be confident.
“He’s been moving well and showing that he’s in good condition,” he said.
If that means anything, it could be another tough night for horseplayers looking for value from Japan.