Is this the weekend when Japan’s chalk-fest ends? Or will that nation’s most popular horse maintain the trend?
With Almond Eye (2-3) already odds-on in overseas betting for Sunday’s $2.58 million Yasuda Kinen (G1), there is no question who will be the favorite on the Tokyo turf. She has already rewarded her fans with a Japanese record-tying seven Grade 1 wins, including three weeks ago in the Victoria Mile. That four-length affirmation came over the same course and distance as she will race Sunday at 2:40 a.m. ET.
“She’s a legend of a horse,” her regular jockey Christophe Lemaire said last month. “She will surely win more Grade 1 races going forward.”
But last month’s victory was against fillies and mares. Under those conditions she is 5-for-5, having turned aside every challenger that filled the 77 places behind her. In her career 100 post positions have been occupied by starters of her gender. She has lost to only three of them.
The exceptions came in open company. They included last year’s Yasuda Kinen, in which she finished third as the 7-10 favorite. In her seven races that have included the boys, Almond Eye has four wins, a second and that third from last spring. There was also a ninth-place finish in December in the Arima Kinen (G1), where she raced only a month after spiking a fever that kept her out of the Hong Kong Cup (G1).
“In last year’s Yasuda Kinen she had trouble at the start,” Almond Eye’s trainer Sakae Kunieda said. “But generally you have to say the Tokyo mile suits her. Even off a fast pace she can get into a good position.”
Lately the Yasuda Kinen is where trends have parted. It has had four consecutive upsets with average odds of 20-1 for the winners. That is in stark contrast to Japan’s last 13 Grade 1 races, which have produced 11 first-place finishers that were either the first or second betting choices at post time. Among them? Almond Eye at 2-5 in the Victoria Mile.
Last year’s winner Indy Champ (7-1) is back this weekend to try and repeat – and to take down Almond Eye one more time. But in this duel of decorated 5-year-olds, he will not be 18-1 again. Not even close.
The 2019 Yasuda Kinen marked the only time that this horse by Stay Gold carried odds longer than 6-1 into any of his 15 starts, mostly because it was his first time in a Grade 1 race. Afterward he proved that that upset was no fluke. He won both last fall in the Mile Championship (G1) and six weeks ago in the Milers Cup (G2) at Hanshin.
That word keeps popping up with Indy Champ. Mile. That is his domain. Since his winning debut in a sprint for 2-year-olds, his last seven victories have all come at a mile – and all but once on firm turf. With fair weather forecast in Tokyo through the weekend, the conditions look favorable for both Indy Champ and Almond Eye to eyeball one another from mid-pack in Sunday’s one-turn race.
Not that this is a two-horse affair. There are nine other Grade 1 winners among the 17 nominees ahead of Friday’s draw. Danon Kingly (7-1), however, is not one of them. The 4-year-old Deep Impact colt set the pace before fading to third as the 5-2 favorite in the 1 1/4-mile Osaka Hai (G1) two months ago at Hanshin. He has won a pair of Grade 2s including one early this year, but he is 0-for-4 in Grade 1s with a second, two thirds and, in last year’s Mile Championship, a fifth behind Indy Champ.
Among the next tier in the early betting, lightly raced 4-year-old filly Gran Alegría (11-1) won last year’s Ōka Shō (G1), one of her three victories at a mile, and she was second more than two months ago in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1) sprint. A Grade 1 winner in 2017, 5-year-old Danon Premium (12-1) was third in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes (G1) nearly two months ago on a soft Randwick course in Australia. Coming off a six-month break since he was a 26-1 winner of the Hong Kong Mile (G1), Admire Mars (14-1) is 3-for-3 in Grade/Group 1s at this weekend’s distance.
If Almond Eye wins Sunday, the narrative is likely to be that her 2-for-4 season last year was an aberration, and that the mare by Lord Kanaloa is all the way back to what she was in 2018 when she was an undefeated champion.
And if she does not win Sunday? Well, maybe it will be said that she is just not as good as the boys.