Saturday night’s Tenno Sho (Spring) (G1) (post time 2:40 a.m. ET) pits defending champion #14 Fierement (2-1) against surging challenger #7 You Can Smile (4-1) and the high-class veteran #8 Kiseki (5-1). It will be a surprise if the winner is anyone other than the top three betting choices, who could make for a chalky trifecta.
But there are a few up-and-comers, most intriguing of all #12 Shirvanshah – the lightly raced son of legends Deep Impact and Azeri – at 30-1 on the morning line. An absolute wildcard with no experience at the Grade 1 level or this about 2-mile trip, the 5-year-old is nevertheless worth a look for reasons beyond pedigree.
Shirvanshah has made only four starts in the past 18 months, but three of them comprised a winning streak in late 2018 and his 2019 debut. In that allowance hat trick, he deployed a terrific late kick with the fastest final 3-furlong times in :34.2, :35.1, and :36.0, respectively. Shirvanshah’s skein ended with a better-than-appears third in the Oct. 6 Kyoto Kinen (G2), where he was the only closer to make the frame.
His form intersects with a couple of top-level winners. Shirvanshah was the last horse to beat Mer de Glace before he went on a six-race spree culminating in Australia’s famed Caulfield Cup (G1). More significantly, the fifth and sixth behind him in the Kyoto Kinen were Etario and Glory Vase. Both had competed in this race last spring, Glory Vase just denied by Fierement and Etario closing for fourth. Glory Vase went on to dominate the Dec. 8 Hong Kong Vase (G1).
Although Shirvanshah has not resurfaced since Oct. 6, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee sees fit to pitch him into this prestigious prize, the “Emperor’s Cup.” Note that the astute Mirco Demuro, who rode him early in his career, regains the mount.
As if there weren’t enough variables around Shirvanshah, you can add the ground. Rain is in the forecast, possibly more after the race, and he’s yet to run on anything other than firm. But given his apparent fragility, some give in the turf could be beneficial. And two of his full siblings have won on soft.
Favored Fierement, another Deep Impact, also enters off a break. After a forgettable trip to Paris for a boggy Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) that didn’t suit him at all, he returned with a fine fourth in the Arima Kinen (G1) Dec. 22. Back up in trip, and at the scene of his signature wins in the 2018 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1) as well as the 2019 Tenno Sho Spring, Fierement will put up a stiff title defense.
There have already been two repeat winners in the past decade, Kitasan Black (2016-17) and Fenomeno (2013-14). Before that, however, you have to go back to T M Opera O (2000-1) to find a dual winner.
Another historical pointer that might give Fierement fans pause is the record of favorites here. According to data analysis courtesy of the Japan Racing Association, favorites have won three straight. But they’d endured a 10-year drought until 2017, and perhaps the pendulum is due to swing back.
The most logical alternative is You Can Smile. Physically stronger and more developed than when fifth to Fierement here a year ago, he was a creditable fourth in the about 1 1/4-mile Tenno Sho (Autumn) (G1) and fifth in the Japan Cup (G1). You Can Smile has the benefit of coming off a prep win in the March 20 Hanshin Daishoten (G2) over the Deep Impact sons Tosen Cambina and Meisho Tengen, who shapes like one wanting this trip.
As Ron Flatter pointed out in his Tenno Sho preview, Kiseki’s last win came over a rain-soaked Kyoto in the 2017 Kikuka Sho, he gets a mulligan for his latest loss, and he picks up Yutaka Take. There’s no doubting his class, since his efforts in defeat include seconds to star distaffers Almond Eye in the 2018 Japan Cup and Lys Gracieux in last summer’s Takarazuka Kinen (G1). Whether he can snap his losing skid while racing prominently in this marathon is another question.
#2 Etario (20-1) fits on back class, having missed in a photo to Fierement in the 2018 Kikuka Sho, but he’s lost his way since his fourth here last year. The son of Stay Gold and Hot Cha Cha might turn over a new leaf with a rider change to Yuga Kawada, a switch that trainer Yasuo Tomomichi believes suits him to a tee. If so, Etario can turn the tables on the top three who beat him in the March 28 Nikkei Sho (G2), Mikki Swallow, Mozu Bello, and Stiffelio.
#1 Mozu Bello (12-1) brings both the upwardly mobile and horse-for-the-course angle with a 5-3-1-0 mark at Kyoto. He’s also capable on yielding in case the rain arrives in greater amounts earlier than forecast.