What if they held an NBA All-Star Game and LeBron James was not there? Or a baseball All-Star Game without Mike Trout? A golf tournament any time this century without Tiger Woods?
They would still play, and there would still be a lot of good talent. But it would not be the same.
That is what Japan faces this weekend with its last big race until fall.
The ever-popular Almond Eye will not be there for the sport’s answer to an all-star game. Neither will this spring’s big names Fierement or Contrail.
But as many as eight Grade 1 winners will still be in a field of perhaps 18 for the $3 million Takarazuka Kinen (G1), a Breeders’ Cup Challenge event offering a berth to the Turf (G1). The open-company, 1⅜-mile race on what may be sodden, yielding turf will be run Sunday at 2:40 a.m. ET at Hanshin Racecourse.
Considering the wear and tear of the spring season, it is not surprising that some big names take a pass on this first of two all-star races filled mostly by fan votes – the other being in December.
“Many years the top horse in the country has skipped this race,” said Kate Hunter, an American ex-pat who has worked more than a decade in the Japanese racing industry. “It is quite common, especially if they had a busy campaign.”
Call it load management.
Almond Eye, for example, is being rested after finishing second to Gran Alegría three weeks ago in the Yasuda Kinen (G1). Japan’s 2018 champion is being aimed at a repeat win in the autumn Tennō Shō (Emperor’s Cup, G1). Fierement won the spring version of that race and is also on a summer break. So is Contrail after winning the first two races in Japan’s Triple Crown. Beside the fact that he is focused on October’s third jewel – the Kikuka Shō (Japanese St. Leger, G1) – 3-year-olds seldom enter this race and have never won it.
But this year’s field is not lacking in quality, depth or storylines.
Lucky Lilac (11-4) is trying to become only the fifth female winner in 61 runnings of the race. Since Lys Gracieux did it on her way to the 2019 Japanese championship, Lucky Lilac could be the second in a row and the third in five years. A 5-year-old closer by 2011 Japanese champion Orfèvre, she won her only previous start at 1⅜ miles – the Queen Elizabeth Cup (G1) last November at Kyoto. And she is coming off an April victory in the 1¼-mile Osaka Hai (G1).
“After her last race she went to the farm,” her trainer Mikio Matsunaga said. “Her movement is good, and she filled out in a way that makes her look bigger and stronger.”
Even though she won the popularity contest to get into the race, Lucky Lilac is not the early betting favorite overseas. That honor for now belongs to Saturnalia (7-4).
A 4-year-old Lord Kanaloa colt, Saturnalia finished first as the favorite more than three months ago in the 1¼-mile Kinko Shō (G2). A mid-pack runner that has two Grade 1 victories, he finished second last December in Japan’s wintertime all-star race – the Arima Kinen (G1) – losing by three-quarters of a length to Lys Gracieux.
Sometimes more than a handful in pre-race parades, Saturnalia has been more relaxed during the pandemic because of the ongoing absence of spectators.
“He was helped last time by the lack of noise,” said Takashi Kotaki, assistant to trainer Katsuhiko Sumii. “Everything went smoothly before the race.”
Buoyed by the forecast of rain, 4-year-old filly Chrono Genesis (5-1) was the only other nominee carrying single-digit odds early this week. Two months after winning over 1⅜ miles of yielding turf in the Kyoto Kinen (G2), the pace-stalking gray by 2004 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Bago lost by a neck to Lady Lilac in the Osaka Hai.
“Last time she drew a wide gate,” her trainer Takashi Saito said. “But she quickly got into position and settled into her stride. She showed that her ability has definitely improved as she has gotten older.”
“Chrono looks amazing,” Hunter said. “Better by night and day than she did when she won the Shuka Shō (G1) last year.”
The well-rested 2019 Hong Kong Vase (G1) winner Glory Vase (10-1) was next in the betting along with a pair of this spring’s Osaka Hai also-rans – Blast Onepiece (10-1) and Wagnerian (10-1). The hard-luck 6-year-old Kiseki (12-1) also looms after setting the pace and fading to sixth in the spring Tennō Shō.
Recent history dictates that bettors should take more than a passing glance at long shots this weekend.
Although 11 of Japan’s last 14 Grade 1 races have been won by top-two betting choices, favorites have failed to win the last six runnings of the Takarazuka Kinen. Since Gold Ship’s repeat in 2014, the average win has paid more than 12-1. And although the Japanese and North American betting pools are not co-mingled, it is worth noting that three of the last six $1 trifecta payouts exceeded $2,300 with a high of $4,942 five years ago.
It is the wet season now in Japan. About 300 miles west of Tokyo, Takarazuka was forecast to get rain every day except Saturday in the lead-up to the Kinen.