by Ron Flatter

Racing in Japan this weekend holds several key races that are interesting betting challenges, Ron Flatter takes a look.

Breeders’ Cup organizers would love to see Almond Eye show up at Keeneland for the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) in November. But that might depend first on which Almond Eye shows up this weekend in Tokyo for the Victoria Mile (G1).

Will it be the one that was Japan’s Horse of the Year in 2018? The one that won seven races in a row and eight Group 1s and $8.45 million in earnings? The one that would have been the odds-on favorite for last December’s Hong Kong Cup (G1)?

Or will it be the one that lost two of her last three races in 2019? The one that spiked a fever to keep her out of Hong Kong? The one that came back late last year to finish ninth as the 1-2 favorite in the Arima Kinen (G1)?

Japan’s most popular active Thoroughbred finally makes her 5-year-old debut against a field of other older fillies and mares in the Victoria Mile, a left-handed, $2.1 million turf race Sunday at 2:40 a.m. ET.

Popularity might have worked against Almond Eye in the Arima Kinen.

“She couldn’t stay calm in front of the crowd,” her jockey Christophe Lemaire said after the race. “She lost her rhythm. She was unable to relax, and since it was a long race she got tired.”

But because there will be no spectators at the Tokyo Racecourse, and because this test is about a half-mile shorter, overseas bettors are expressing their optimism in Almond Eye (2-3) by making her an odds-on favorite. She leads a talented but flawed group of entrants looking to win this race that was just added to the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, making it a win-and-you’re-in that is complete with fees waived and a lot of the expenses paid to get to Kentucky in November.

Getting to and from the Middle East was a story in and of itself for Almond Eye. She was flown there in March in a bid to win a second straight Dubai Turf (G1). But the onset of the coronavirus emergency led to the race and the whole card being canceled.

“She returned to Japan and saw out the quarantine,” her trainer Sakae Kunieda said.

“Then she went to (a farm) and came back to the stable on April 30.”

Sakae Kunieda

Kunieda will hope the return from Dubai goes better than it did last year. That was when Almond Eye’s winning streak ended with a narrow, third-place finish from a wide draw June 2 in the Yasuda Kinen (G1) over the same course and distance as she will race this weekend.

The clear second choice in early betting, Loves Only You (4-1) was 4-for-4 before finishing third as the favorite in November in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) at Kyoto. Raced all three times last year at 1 1/4-1 1/2 miles, this 4-year-old Deep Impact filly out of a Storm Cat mare cuts back to go a mile for only the second time in her lightly raced career.

“She looks powerful, and I think she can be effective over a mile,” said Shigeki Miyauchi, assistant to trainer Yoshito Yahagi. After riding 28-1 long shot Lauda Sion to victory in last week’s NHK Mile Cup (G1), Mirco Demuro will be back at Tokyo to partner Loves Only You.

Also by Deep Impact, 5-year-old mile specialist Sound Chiara (13-2) did not make her stakes debut until she was seventh in last year’s Victoria Mile. But she is clearly getting better with age. After winning only 2 of 13 starts before a break last summer, she had four firsts and a third in her five starts since. Sound Chiara’s current three-race winning streak includes two Group 3s and last month’s Hanshin Himba (G2), and she could fit into an odd, recent trend for this race. Four of the last five first-place finishers in the Victoria Mile came in with no Group 1 wins.

After setting a course-record of 1:30.5 to win this race last year, Normcore (9-1) tries to become the third horse in the last six years to repeat. She started her 5-year-old season with a 12th-place finish in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1), but that was over just 6 furlongs. Now this Harbinger mare takes her deep-closing style back to a more suitable pet distance, at which her only loss in four starts was her fourth-place finish in last December’s Hong Kong Mile (G1). Then again, last year’s Victoria Mile was her only time in the money in four Group 1 starts.

Once a promising juvenile, 4-year-old Danon Fantasy (12-1) has been mostly disappointing since. This Deep Impact filly has been a beaten favorite in three of her last five races, including a fifth-place finish last month to Sound Chiara in the Hanshin Himba (G2). Her one win since last spring was in a 9-furlong Group 2 start last September at Hanshin.

Among the next tier in early betting, 5-year-old closer Primo Scene (14-1) has lost eight of her last nine, 4-year-old stalker Beach Samba (16-1) has lost all nine starts since her debut win, 4-year-old pacesetter Contra Check (16-1) was last on soft going in March but is 4-for-5 on firm turf, and deep-closing 5-year-old Scarlet Color (18-1) is only 1-for-13 in group stakes.

Ultimately this race without much obvious early pace may be Almond Eye’s to win or lose. Coming off the second five-month break of her career, Kunieda hopes to see a return of the horse that won over Japan in 2018.

“Not having had a recent race,” he said, “she’s not tired at all. She’s in good condition and ready to go.”